Saturday 18 December 2021

A visit to Crossness, Bexley

 9th July 2021

Setting off from London Bridge, the Thameslink train rushed through the leafy suburbs of South East London. The high rises of Lewisham town centre quickly transformed into the quaint Victorian streets of Plumstead, which in turn became the 1930s-built houses of Falconwood and Welling. This was the first time I was visiting the borough of Bexley, drawn by one of its ecological secrets: Crossness Local Nature Reserve. Disembarking at Bexleyheath station, I met Ralph Todd, a local naturalist and conservationist, whom for the past few decades had led the RSPB Bexley Group with his wife Brenda. His wealth of knowledge - both about Bexley's environment and the natural world as a whole - was astounding. There was no better person to be exploring the mosaic of Crossness with. 

Driving from the station towards the Thames gave us the opportunity to view the borough's changing landscape. Beyond the houses of Bexley was the boundary with Greenwich, where the urban residential area had petered out, becoming the sprawling canopy of Bostall Woods. The Woods are an SSSI and a former haunt of highwaymen. Beyond the woods, the road eventually took us up over a flyover, giving us a sweeping view of all of Bexley. To the east was the 1960s-built Thamesmead Estate, where Ralph often conducted wildlife surveys, at an area of green space called the Thamesmead Ecological Study Area.


In front of the Estate lay the gargantuan Southmere Lake, and to the west, acres of sprawling parkland. As the flyover descended adjacent to Southmere Park, we entered the borough's forested motorways - endless, pleasant corridors of trees that seemed to stretch for miles in every direction. One of these corridors led us to a final defining feature of Bexley's beautifully discordant landscape: Crossness.

To our right, distribution centres bustled with the traffic of vans and lorries. And on the left, the fenced-off sewage treatment works, which concealed the subterranean Crossness Pumping Station (built to combat the Great Stink of 1858). Rows of reeds lined the roads, bursting out from behind the boundary fences. Towering above the reeds, sitting in between this industrial world and the marshland beyond it, stood two gigantic incinerators, appearing to guard their surroundings like sentinels. This was a wild combination of grey and green which I had never seen before in the capital. It was absolutely stunning.


Ralph unlocked the gate to the reserve beyond. Hedgerows lined the road to the nature reserve's footpath, while acres of surrounding grass and reedbeds swayed daintily in the light breeze. We disembarked from the car, and marvelled at this patchwork of habitats. A lone Sedge Warbler belted its fluid and babbly tune atop some teazels: Ralph remarked it had been singing frequently at this spot for the past few days.

Reedbeds at Crossness

These habitats have ancient origins, being in their present state as grazing marshes for at least 800 years. However, it is only because of the work of the Friends of Crossness volunteer group that it continues to be a thriving haven for wildlife. One of the group's leaders is Thames Water site manager Karen Sutton, whom we met as we arrived.

Karen introduced me to the work of the volunteers, who help to raise awareness of the site's biodiversity, record its wildlife, and look after its diverse range of habitats. The group's membership had seen a significant increase during the pandemic, and it was encouraging to learn that more people had developed a passion for their local green space.

After meeting Karen, Ralph and I walked to the beginning of the reserve footpath, bordered by inquisitive horses which had paused briefly from grazing in their pastures as they noticed us. We walked past channels where scores of common blue damselflies danced on the water's surface, while House Sparrows chirped and flitted above the abundant bindweed. Although some may find its flowers attractive, and they benefit bees and moths, Ralph warned that bindweed would be extremely difficult to remove from gardens if introduced.


Opposite the stream and the bindweed was a tall fence, separating Crossness Water Treatment Works from the reserve. Sections of the fence had been hidden by the growth of hedgerows planted by the volunteers: an astonishing sight of green coexisting with grey.


Development on the ancient grazing marsh was not a novel occurrence. The first major change to the habitat took place in the late 19th Century, with the expansion of the Royal Arsenal munitions factory on Plumstead Marshes. Surprisingly, the marshes' birds were recorded quite often, by the munitions inspector Richard Ruegg. These included Red Kite, Bewick's Swan in winter, and even Little Bittern. Unfortunately Plumstead Marshes no longer exist today, gradually eaten away by developments such as Thamesmead. Today the surviving Erith Marshes and Crossness, though threatened, still have a plethora of bird species.

The path soon rose from the hedges, fences and channels, into an expanse of gorgeous scrubland. Linnets chatted noisily in all directions, darting furiously in the muggy air, with the sound of jangling keys emanating from the scattered bushes. Ralph suspected the population had had their second broods, which had recently fledged.


By this time of the morning, the sun had peeked from behind the newer of the two incinerators, illuminating the scrubland in a haze of bright gold. The scrubland itself was still fairly quiet, apart from the Linnets and the odd 'peewit' of a Lapwing, so we ambled up along a ramp to see what birds Old Father Thames could offer.

Lush reedbeds clung on to the mudflats as the river lapped against the banks, from which intermittent explosions of Reed and Cetti's Warbler song emerged. Clustered around the reeds' delicate stems, Oystercatchers preened their feathers, and a Common Sandpiper trotted in circles, in clumsy desperation, searching for something to eat in the mud. Great Crested Grebes, an uncommon sight in a river, seemed to prefer the edges of the reeds. Their spherical bodies bobbed up and down in the waves until they disappeared beneath the surface.

A rushing sound filled our ears. The sewage outflow from the treatment works spilled out noisily into the river, met by the raucous chattering of seventy-five Black-headed Gulls. From this I remembered learning from social media about the rare gulls that the reserve has hosted in the past, and asked Ralph if we might be lucky enough to see a Bonaparte's Gull that day. Instead, he challenged me to identify one among the indecipherable flock of gulls in the water, at which I failed miserably.

The sewage outflow was enveloped in a large shadow, cast by the older of the two incinerators. The looming sentinel's facade seemed to have grown weary, with dust gathering on its intricate and undulating spine. It hummed with determination, in competition with a Water Rail which croaked in the undergrowth beneath it. 

Industry was present on both sides of the Thames. The famous Ford plant dominated the view of Barking & Dagenham, its blue logo like an eye staring back quite ominously at the incinerators. The factory was the centre of a rugged landscape, a remarkable clutter of wind turbines, cars, trailers and chimneys. the only natural feature was the Beam River, a sliver of green squeezed between the landscape's corrugated crevasses.

The Thames between Barking & Dagenham and Bexley

Retracing our steps from the Thames, we soon came face to face with the newer incinerator. Atop its spine, comparatively shinier than that of its neighbour, sat two Peregrine falcons. The species had become increasingly common in the capital, favouring taller buildings to nest in, which imitated the cliffs where they were once more commonly found. One falcon was slightly larger than the other, a female, gazing authoritatively over Erith Marshes; while the male looked perplexed, frantically turning his head in every direction. Peregrines were yet to breed in the area, though there had been a breeding pair in nearby Abbey Wood.

Before lunch, we stopped at a recently-built viewing screen overlooking the grassland and marshland in front of the newer incinerator, which we had seen upon our arrival. Ralph informed me the area of marshland was known as the West Paddock. Two years before, Lapwings had successfully bred on these fields for the first time: a glimmer of hope here for this red-listed species, sheltering from the ever-encroaching shadow of human interference.

We retreated from the afternoon heat to the protected area of the reserve, to eat our sandwiches. Secluded by foliage and a charming weather vane, the hexagonal Friends of Crossness bird hide offered 360-degree views of reedbeds. Ralph explained some of this habitat had occurred naturally, but through the efforts of the volunteers, an extra 72,000 reeds had been added, creating a valuable habitat for waterbirds and warblers. Among the topics we discussed were our planned birding trips abroad, many of which had been cancelled due to the pandemic; and how to encourage more young people in Bexley to enjoy the natural world.

After lunch, we headed into the reedbeds, listening out for Willow Warblers, Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs concealed in the overhanging trees. The golden reeds evoked memories of Titchwell Marsh and Lakenheath Fen, and the sanctuary they provided for Bearded Tits, Bitterns and other charismatic species. It would not be impossible to imagine them visiting Crossness, if they had not already in the past.

Venturing out of the reedbeds, we reached a viewpoint overlooking the marshes, and the hubbub of development and distribution centres around it. It offered a moment of reflection for both of us, on the future of Crossness. Its wildlife was still at risk from the onslaught of the built environment.

Ralph explained that two data centres and yet another incinerator will replace replace the marshes and their red-listed species next year. He and other local conservationists had campaigned against this, but it was heartbreaking and frankly unimaginable to think that this habitat, with its ancient origins and incredible array of wildlife, would be lost forever in a matter of months' time. From my own experiences of campaigning, to save Warren Farm in Ealing from future development, it is an important part of uniting communities and raising awareness of the threats faced by nature reserves like this one.

Crossness is indeed an extraordinary hidden ecological jewel in Bexley's crown, with its fragile habitats and species diminishing over the centuries. But what remains is stunning, and its future will be determined by greater awareness and cooperation between everyone to protect it. Only then will future generations be able to hear the 'peewit' of a Lapwing in urban Bexley.

The fields of Crossness, with Lesnes Abbey Wood behind it

Thursday 19 August 2021

A Green Roof in Greenwich

4th July 2021

Upon arriving at North Greenwich station, I walked to the bus stop, where I was greeted by the gigantic tree-lined car parks surrounding the O2. In fact, there were not many trees at all - in their place stood towering office blocks, some of which looked quite futuristic and otherworldly. This concrete metropolis seemed to stretch for miles around; however, I had forgotten that wildlife thrived here in a most unusual way.

The bus passed through much of this emerging urban jungle: brownfield sites, new villages and flats enveloped the landscape. That is, until I reached an IKEA. Beneath this large blue shipping container I met Dusty Gedge, a real champion of green infrastructure who had promoted the use of green roofs in cities over the past few decades. Last year he had introduced me to the stunning parks and rivers of urban Lewisham, but now, we were visiting a habitat created entirely by people.

We climbed a staircase to a large grey door. Like a portal to another dimension, it opened onto an endless array of gardens. The grey, polished IKEA flooring had transformed into a lush carpet of sedum, and mesmerising views of the capital, both urban and rural, stretched for as far as the eye could see in every direction. The charming call of Linnets could be heard above the noise of traffic below, and Pied Wagtails darted their heads from side to side in utter confusion, before flying back into the urban sprawl.

The IKEA Greenwich green roof (credit: Aryan Kaul)

Scattered among the sedum grew the beautiful Viper's Bugloss. These gorgeous plants were filled with Bumblebees, nestled in between their glowing blue and purple hues. In fact, the Viper's Bugloss Bee had been discovered recently in Greenwich, a new species which Dusty hoped would visit the roof.

Adjacent to the sedum was a kitchen garden, where onions and delicious strawberries grew. Artificial grass and deck chairs - far different from the surrounding vegetation - lay at the heart of the roof: perhaps a place for IKEA staff to rest and take in the views. However, the most striking feature of this novel environment was its variety of wildflowers. Facing the gleaming skyscrapers of Canary Wharf grew scattered numbers of Chicory, Purple Toadflax, Oxeye Daisy and Common Vetch, clinging onto the soil in the wind. This assortment of hardy flowers had been collected locally by Dusty, from around Southeast London.

Dusty described green roofs as 'tough places'. There are several challenges involved in creating and maintaining green roofs - a great deal of resilience and patience is required. However, they have certainly gained popularity. Over the years, an expectation of green roofs by local authorities in London had been formed, and Greenwich now had the third largest area of green roofs in the capital. In fact, forty percent of the green space in the surrounding new developments consisted of green roofs. 

The microclimate and location of green roofs attract a whole range of biodiversity. Dusty had suspected that the Greenwich roof was home to a nesting pair of Linnets, the first instance in Europe, let alone in the UK. Crucially, green roofs across the capital had aimed to boost the capital's population of Black Redstarts, which favour industrial and urban environments. None had visited the Greenwich roof yet, though they had become a frequent sight in Westminster and Canary Wharf.

The IKEA Greenwich green roof, facing Canary Wharf and the O2 (credit: Aryan Kaul)

Invertebrates had become rife too. A Migrant Hawker flitted past us, and a few Craneflies scuttled along the gravel as we admired the wildflowers. The Purple Toadflax was a favourite of moths, namely the Toadflax Brocade Moth; and of course, there were the bees, gently tending to the myriad of flowers, with bulbous bags of pollen grasping their legs. 

It is remarkable to think how quickly this new ecosystem had been developed; starting with a few seeds collected locally, plenty of insects arrived, and birds took refuge in the bushes that soon sprouted. The fact that green infrastructure is on the rise certainly makes me optimistic about the future of wildlife in Inner London. The IKEA Greenwich green roof was created by people through sheer determination and resilience - it is testimony to what we can achieve in accommodating wildlife within our inner cities.


Tuesday 29 June 2021

Evening walk around Warren Farm

10th June 2021

On a mild June evening my mum, brother and I travelled to Norwood Green in Ealing; we were visiting Warren Farm! For the last three months I had been confined to a desk at home and at school, preparing for and sitting exams respectively. The end of this challenging period had led to the beginning of a much more eventful one, giving me more opportunities to spend time in urban green spaces.

Upon arriving in Hanwell, we walked briskly through its seemingly-rural streets, with rows of Edwardian houses and a village green. After passing the confluence of the Grand Union Canal with the River Brent, we arrived just in time to meet other campaigners from Warren Farm Nature Reserve. We met Katie Boyles again, a conservationist who has widely publicised the Warren Farm Nature Reserve campaign, which I have been part of for the past two years. I had only been communicating with campaigners like Katie for the last year through phone calls and emails, so to meet some of them in person gave us a chance to share our enthusiasm for the natural world, and our excitement for the future of Warren Farm.

The leading campaigners at Warren Farm Nature Reserve are a team of conservationists, botanists, ecologists and entomologists who would like to see Warren Farm and the surrounding habitats designated as a Local Nature Reserve; several of them were at the walk. We were soon joined by a much larger group, the Hanwell Village Green Residents' Association. It was very uplifting to see so many people here, who shared a common vision for the meadow. 

Starting at Trumper's Field, we headed beyond the railway line and past the entrance gate. Here, ornithologist Phil Belman, leading the walk, informed us of the signs of an acid grassland habitat. Acid grassland is a very rare habitat in both London and Middlesex, and can be identified by the dominance of red-coloured grasses. Indeed, as the sun set, red and orange pockets were illuminated across the landcsape, transforming the meadow into a rare quilt of colour. We listened in awe at the endless bubbly, scratchy song of the Skylark from deep beneath the grass, accompanied by the occasional Blackbird or Song Thrush: a chorus that would disappear forever if this site were to be lost.

Phil led us towards the Imperial College field, which is grazed by a few silent horses. By now the sky had become a brilliant orange, settling above a strange assortment of buildings in the distance, which included several tower blocks and the GSK headquarters. Here, Phil emphasised the importance of Warren Farm Nature Reserve's vision; not just to make Warren Farm a Local Nature Reserve, but to connect it to the surrounding private land, to form a wildlife corridor between different habitats. Excited chatter continued to rise at this idea, as we slowly walked towards the brownfield site.

Warren Farm Sports Centre today lies deserted and derelict. Its changing rooms are now merely large blocks of concrete, daubed in graffiti. Yet even here, from between cracks in the ground, a vast array of plants have grown, allowing nature to reclaim the site. The former sports centre, despite being an eyesore to some, has been visited by Kestrels, a Black Redstart and even a Wryneck, with the latter starting a small twitch in September 2020. We can only guess what rare and unusual species will visit this unlikely habitat in the future.

Walking along the meadow's southernmost path and away from the brownfield site, a myriad of familiar screeches from above became audible. Dozens of Swifts danced like aerial acrobats in the air, gracefully moving their scimitar-like wings to catch the meadow's multitude of insects. Meanwhile, an isolated group of trees and shrubs concealing the busy Windmill Lane from the meadow, were rather silent, except for the occasional 'ticking' sound of a Blackbird. This area was a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation, and once had a fence around it - this was removed a few years ago, allowing wildlife to travel between the meadow and neighbouring Osterley Park. Adjacent to this wildlife site was another fence, separating Warren Farm from a field owned by the Earl of Jersey, and beyond the field, an ancient woodland. Warren Farm Nature Reserve hope that the field can become part of the Local Nature Reserve too, thereby creating a larger wildlife corridor to sustain Warren Farm's populations of rare species.

As we completed one full circle of the meadow, half of the group stopped abruptly near trees bordering the River Brent. Phil had spotted something in the trees, only viewable with a night vision monocular. As I looked through the monocular, there was not any obvious movement between the tangled branches: until, a pair of radiant white orbs stared back at me, possibly bewildered at the sight of visitors. A Little Owl chick!

This evening walk around Warren Farm not only gave me the opportunity to meet fellow campaigners and residents and share our ideas and enthusiasm, but also encouraged me to feel more optimistic about the future of its unique biodiversity. I would highly encourage visiting this stunning urban meadow, and I hope that one day, its incredible wildlife can be protected for generations to come.

Warren Farm, May 2020

Sunset over Warren Farm (photo: Gayatri Kaul)

Friday 28 May 2021

Summer Holiday 2020

18th July 2020

The start of the summer holiday definitely helped me to forget about the stress of lockdown, which came from sitting in one room all day doing schoolwork! I visited what is one of my favourite places in the whole of London, Barnsbury, in Islington (I wrote about its history in a previous post, here). I was once again greeted by the old industrial buildings and the late Georgian architecture, as well as the Coots, resilient and resourceful birds. Even when exiting the towpath and entering the immense Barnsbury Estate, there was wildlife, in the form of a Blackbird hopping frantically around a berry bush. When I returned to the Canal through a circular walk, Canada Geese swam gracefully towards the Islington Tunnel, and a huge Emperor Dragonfly buzzed enthusiastically around the wilder part of the Canal, next to the London Wildlife Trust's Camley Street Natural Park; this urban nature reserve is currently closed, though I hope to visit in the future. A short, but memorable afternoon.

Cube-shaped trees in Granary Square

A Coot sitting on its nest



Eyed Hawkmoth Caterpillar

A feeding station overlooking the Canal

A family of Canada Geese

22nd July 2020

I returned to the splendid Warren Farm, where it was brilliant to bump into Neil Smith, the local meteorologist. The meadow did not have many visitors, though unfortunately somebody walked into the long grass, causing at least six Skylarks to shoot up into the air in confusion. The acid grassland habitat was teeming with Linnets and Goldfinches; in the old oak tree, there were a dozen Mistle Thrushes; and the alarm calls of Little Owls could be heard along the canal. This reminded me of the paradise that Warren Farm is, and that its diverse range of species needed protecting.

Mistle Thrush in flight


27th July 2020
Over the lockdown I had learned about an area of scrubland adjacent to Roxeth Recreation Ground in South Harrow, where I used to live. If I still did live there, this would have probably been my patch! Officially called Roxeth Park Natural Area, the scrubland habitat is home to a variety of migratory species such as Whitethroat and Chiffchaff, and a male Willow Warbler was recorded singing there in the spring. A lot of insects and resident birds like Greenfinches, Nuthatches and House Sparrows thrive here too, despite the site being near a busy railway line.

Black-headed Gull on Roxeth Recreation Ground

Red Kite soaring above

Roxeth Park Natural Area

31st July 2020
A very exciting morning! I would be taking part in podcast for the London Design Festival, about the bicentenary of the Regent's Canal, including its history and its wildlife. I was going to narrate the podcast and interview a designer over the course of the holidays, but today I was with Justine, Sarah and Deborah from There Project to create an audio guide for the stretch of the Canal between Angel and Haggerston. We started at the Islington Tunnel, and slowly walked along the towpath. It was superb to talk about how birds such as Coots and Peregrines have adapted to life on the Canal, and describe its industrial history.

At the end of the route, we went to Kingsland Basin, managed by the amazing Wildlife Gardeners of Haggerston. Thanks to their conservation efforts, the stretch of the Canal from Whitmore Road Bridge to the Basin now has a wealth of wetland species: Cormorants, Herons, nesting Mute Swans, Emperor Dragonflies, various species of fish and a population of Cockney Sparras all thrive here. This is definitely urban conservation at its finest!

The towpath at Haggerston

Field Grasshopper

A very wild area of scrubland beside the towpath

Coots have adapted exceptionally well to the Canal's environment

Kingsland Basin, Haggerston

Cockney Sparra (House Sparrow)

A Red-eared Terrapin!

Kingsland Basin, with the City behind it

3rd August 2020
During the past few months I had tried to visit local wildlife sites and nature reserves, including my patch, a lot more often. I had heard that there was a small number of Brown Hairstreaks at a green space called Ruislip Gardens, a collection of open spaces that is part of the larger Ickenham Marshes. It was fascinating to think that this species was very scarce in London, yet on my doorstep! Much of Ickenham Marshes, including Ruislip Gardens, used to be common land, and now a part of it is managed by the London Wildlife Trust. It is even mentioned in the poem Middlesex by former Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman, with the first line being 'Gaily into Ruislip Gardens/the red electric train'.

When I arrived, there were tall hedgerows on either side, with House Sparrows and Blue Tits flitting about in them. These hedgerows led into a complex of woodland and scrubland, with several Gatekeepers, Brimstones, Small Tortoiseshells and Large Whites moving gently among the abundance of flowers. On one of these flowers sat the butterfly I was looking for. I forgot to take a photo in my excitement!

At the edge of this mosaic of habitats was the Yeading Brook, a river which flows through many of my local green spaces, and into the Thames as the River Crane. Beyond the river was a rather different landscape, RAF Northolt. Here, Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs sung away in the overhanging trees, and large dragonflies darted above the water. With the lack of visitors that afternoon, Magpies began to dominate the scrubland, both with their presence and their 'cackling'. I hope to visit Ruislip Gardens more often in the future: an excellent habitat for the borough's birds and butterflies.

The wild paths of Ruislip Gardens


12th and 22nd August 2020
The holidays had given me a lot more time to reconnect with my patch, Ruislip Woods, too. I met up with local young birder, Alex Liddle, who had found some amazing summer migrants that had arrived in an area of meadow and scrubland west of the Lido called Poor's Field. From the morning to the evening, the field was alive with the song of warblers, and it was here I began to appreciate how beautiful the plumage of these birds can be! One morning, Alex had found a Pied Flycatcher, a rather uncommon visitor to the Woods. Ten minutes later, the sighting had attracted several other local birders; while we were cautiously scanning the bushes for the bird to reappear, a male Redstart, displaying its striking orange-red chest, darted seemingly out of nowhere!

Other species that were sighted that month included Winchat, Spotted Flycatcher and Tree Pipit. I think that Ruislip Woods as a nature reserve and birding site is not widely known or celebrated for its wildlife as much as it should be, though with larger numbers of visitors throughout the pandemic, I am hopeful that more will discover its ability to surprise and impress.

The scrubland habitat of Poor's Field

Egyptian Goose at the Lido


Poor's Field, also known as Ruislip Common, is home to Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers in summer

Speckled Wood

15th August 2020
After hearing on Twitter about a pair of Great Skuas (or Bonxies) flying above Spelthorne, I headed to Staines Reservoirs to attempt to see them. Unfortunately they had flown west towards Berkshire by that point, though it was great to return to the site after a number of months. It was also the first time in a while that I used my relatively new scope: this gave me decent views of Black Terns, a Little Ringed Plover, a Dunlin, and one of the site's star species, the Black-necked Grebe!

A distant Black-necked Grebe

18th August 2020
In the morning, my mum and I travelled to Uxbridge's Little Britain Lake, to meet conservationist John Randall. I first met John at a reception at the House of Lords in 2018, and ever since he has encouraged me to learn about the wildlife of Hillingdon and London as a whole. Recently, he introduced me to Middlesex Heritage, and with the organisation's president Russell Grant, we launched a competition to determine Middlesex's historic county bird.

John introduced us to the different areas of the Lake, and the species that live there. There were several Great Crested Grebes, Egyptian Geese, and other wildfowl species on the main lake. The path that circled that lake led onto a narrow trail, with dense foliage on either side and the sound of birdsong: these tranquil trails are a characteristic of the Colne Valley, which I am lucky to have right on my doorstep. This was the Hillingdon Trail, which extends across the breadth of the borough, from Harefield in the north to Cranford in the south.

We walked over the Grand Union Canal's Slough Arm, where Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs sang in the bushes. Beyond this was the River Colne, and a number of lakes. Here it was rather quiet, with a few Tufted Ducks and Canada Geese present. When we followed the path back to the main lake, we were surprised by at least five Cormorants and a large flock of Gadwall! Visiting Little Britain Lake, among other local sites, has definitely taught me to value and appreciate the vast range of habitats and species found in Hillingdon.

Little Britain Lake

Family of Coots

Great Crested Grebes


21st August 2020
Local birder and conservationist Samuel Levy and I visited a wildlife corridor in Hillingdon and Ealing, collectively known as the Yeading Wildlife Sites. This beautiful area of woodland, scrubland and parkland is part of the wider Crane Valley, and was effectively my lockdown patch!

We entered Gutteridge Wood, which, along with Ten Acre Wood, make up the Yeading Woods Local Nature Reserve. The wood is semi-ancient, and has very impressive bluebell displays in spring. Kingfishers frequent the banks of the brook, though on this particular visit, the yaffling of Green Woodpeckers and the song of warblers filled the trees. Deeper into the woods, we heard Bullfinches, and now there was a repetitive shriek, similar to that of a Parakeet, though shorter and sharper. Samuel had identified these as Hobby fledgelings! Three of them were perched high up in a dead tree, looking towards the endless maze of fields and the bustling A40, presumably in search of a meal.

The winding Hillingdon Trail lead out of the wood, and into a vast complex of open spaces, the Yeading Meadows Local Nature Reserve. Parts of this reserve had cattle grazing and small bodies of water, home to Moorhens and Coots, were fed by the Yeading Brook. Autumn migration had begun, and strong easterly winds had brought Wheatears! As we walked into one patch of scrubland, we came across one of these autumnal migrants, a stunning Spotted Flycatcher, which was an excellent record for the area. Small Copper and Small Heath butterflies were also the highlights of this scrubland. Hedgerows, vital habitats for many nesting birds, could be seen in Yeading Meadows: a lot of the hedgerows in West Middlesex were planted during the Enclosure Act of 1804, so perhaps these ones were over two hundred years old!

We walked across a boardwalk and into Ten Acre Wood, another London Wildlife Trust nature reserve. This wood is at least one hundred years old, beginning life as a small plantation. The calls of Kingfishers were heard briefly along the riverbank. A large area of scrubland lay behind the wood, which provided a home for Whitethroats in summer, and Redwings and Fieldfares in winter. The wood itself was eerily quiet, with a few woodpeckers, Robins and Magpies hopping around in the ancient trees.

The last of these magnificent sites can be found past Hillingdon's border with Ealing. We crossed the Golden Bridge, built in 1984, and into Yeading Brook Meadows in Northolt. This site is particularly good for raptors, and this morning there were hunting Kestrels, and the call of juvenile Sparrowhawks begging for their parents to feed them could be heard in a distant tree. This is one of Ealing's last strongholds for Skylarks, which have become increasingly rare in the region. The bushes on the reserve's boundary were chattering with warbler, thrush and tit species, and Muntjac (or 'barking deer'), introduced into Bedfordshire by accident in the 19th Century, sometimes can be found in the open grassland habitat, though there were none on our visit. There were even Roesel's Bush Crickets in the long grass, a species which has become more common in recent years.

The beginning of autumn had brought many surprises to the Yeading Wildlife Sites, though they are spectacular all year round!

Hobby fledgelings!

Spotted Flycatcher, or 'Spot Fly'

Roesel's Bush Cricket

27th August 2020

Towards the end of the holidays, I once again found myself among the nineteenth-century leafy suburbs of Lewisham. I was going to meet Anna-Maria and Nick from the Buckthorne Cutting Nature Reserve, a quite railside wildlife corridor just a stone's throw away from the bustling Honor Oak Park. A remnant of the ancient Great North Wood, the reserve and its surroundings are rich in history; in fact the name of Brockley where it is situated, derives from 'Broca's wood clearing'. The early 19th Century brought industry to the area, then known as Brockley Green, through the construction of the Croydon Canal - this short-lived waterway closed in 1836 and is now the railway between New Cross and Honor Oak. A century later one of the first scout groups was formed, the Brockley 5th also known as the 'Dandy Fifth'. Over the next ninety years their scout hut and the surrounding park was used by hundreds of scouts, until its closure in 2004. Anna-Maria and Nick informed me they were campaigning to reopen it, to give more local children the opportunity to learn about nature.

We walked through a maze of tangled tree branches, and looking upwards into the canopy made me appreciate the age of this unique ecosystem. After walking down a long, winding path, we reached a large clearing. The ground was littered with small spherical stones - the volunteers here believed that these were sarsen stones. Overlooking the railway was a huge platform which Anna-Maria and Nick had built very recently; an outdoor classroom, encouraging children to immerse themselves in this stunning nature reserve. Beyond this clearing lay something very unusual, yet remarkable. In the middle of this sprawling complex of ancient woodland lay a reedbed. This seemed like the perfect habitat for species like Reed Bunting and Cetti's Warbler, which I was very excited by. Though there had not been much wildlife visiting it, Anna-Maria and Nick remained optimistic for the reedbed's future. 

Many do not imagine such stunning habitats being situated in Inner London, yet here was a magnificent ancient woodland filled with the yaffles of Green Woodpeckers and the song of Blackcaps. This hidden haven for biodiversity situated next to a busy railway is thriving through the local community, and I am looking forward to visiting again one day.

The dense vegetation of Buckthorne Cutting, part of the Great North Wood

One of the many sarsen stones at the nature reserve

A possible marker of a parish or historic county boundary

The outdoor classroom

Later that day, I travelled to the north of the borough to meet the inspirational Dusty Gedge at Brookmill Park. Dusty helped to bring green roofs and green infrastructure to London in the 1990s and 2000s, a new habitat which had led to Black Redstarts thriving in the capital. It was fabulous to talk about London history, urban wildlife, and the birds found in Lewisham and Greenwich - we followed the course of the Ravensbourne River, which was home to Kingfishers! The Ravensbourne was sandwiched between tall buildings and busy main roads, yet Little Egrets, Coots and Moorhens had adapted to live in this truly urban setting. As the river became Deptford Creek nearer to the Thames, Dusty was reminded of the Whitebait Supper. This was a meal attended by cabinet ministers before a State Opening of Parliament in the 19th Century, at the pubs of Deptford and Greenwich. Whitebait are young herring or sprat deep fried and seasoned, and were once commonly caught in the Thames and its tributaries; though this is less prevalent today.

After this insightful walk with Dusty, I very briefly visited Confluence Park in Lewisham town centre. This small and relatively new green space is the confluence (as the name suggests) of the Ravensbourne and the Quaggy, though unfortunately there were not any Kingfishers when I visited!

Mallards in the Ravensbourne

The Ravensbourne at Brookmill Park LNR

House Sparrow

The confluence of the Ravensbourne and Quaggy

28th August 2020
In the morning I met my mentor David Lindo, at his patch, Wormwood Scrubs in East Acton. It was fantastic to catch up after a few months, as well as to return to this impressive nature reserve. One of London's best birding sites, it is an important stop for migratory warblers. Autumn migration had begun, so the scrubland was alive with the scratchy songs of Whitethroats, Lesser Whitethroats and Blackcaps. I learned a lot from David about the history of the site, from being part of the Forest of Middlesex, to becoming a Prisoner of War camp in World War Two.

Hedgerows and scrubland


The playing fields, which have provided an unlikely resting point for some rare migratory birds over the years

A Kestrel flies overhead

Carrion Crow

31st August 2020
I met Samuel again, this time at his patch in the Totteridge Valley. I had previously visited around a year before, but with the knowledge that autumn migration was taking place, I was very excited! We headed from Totteridge Common through some large fields, and to Darland's Lake Nature Reserve. Samuel had seen some Teals in recent times, though the lake only had Coots and Moorhens on this particular morning.

Vast, sprawling farmland and fields were the dominant habitat of the Valley. In one of these fields, Samuel found a number of Rooks amongst Jackdaws and Carrion Crows. We walked up a hill and past cornfields, where we had seen a number of Whinchats the previous summer, though it was rather quiet today. Nevertheless, as usual, the sky gave us several raptor species - Red Kites, Buzzards, Sparrowhawks and Kestrels. The most memorable part of the day was visiting a little-known viewpoint, and being greeted by the London skyline! To witness a Hobby darting past the City of London was very remarkable, emphasising how important these farmland habitats are to the biodiversity of the capital's fringes.

The scrubland of the Totteridge Valley

Darland's Lake Nature Reserve

Rooks - an increasingly rare corvid in London

The cornfields

The Totteridge Valley, with Central London and Canary Wharf in the background


The summer holidays had given me the chance to learn and discover more of London's unique wildlife, and meet more of the people who protect it. Also, visiting your own patch more regularly can be very rewarding: you never know what you might find!