19th September 2020
My first blog post in a while!
In September I had the unforgettable experience of filming with BBC Autumnwatch, at some of my favourite wildlife sites close to central London.
I arrived in the City at eight o’ clock in the morning, and it was freezing! The City is the historic core of Greater London and Middlesex; it was brilliant to show a different side to it, through the Barbican Wildlife Garden (BWG), a magical residents' garden which I have visited several times. When the famous Brutalist Barbican Estate was being built, the garden was a bomb site and dumping ground, but thanks to the dedication of local volunteers, it was transformed into an oasis for wildlife. Today, it is home to a huge variety of birds, including Kestrels, Sparrowhawks, Goldfinches, and House Sparrows, which are often called ‘Cockney sparras’ in the East End. House Sparrows have declined severely due to habitat loss and avian malaria, but the fabulous BWG volunteers have planted berry bushes and put out sparrow nestboxes for them to breed, allowing a population from neighbouring Islington to thrive there: hopefully their numbers will increase soon! There are also hundreds of invertebrate and plant species, including the very rare Lesser Stag Beetle, which came as larvae within the BWG’s wood piles when they were brought over from Epping Forest, Essex. The BWG uses ancient techniques to cause minimal disturbance to wildlife, such as scything during the autumn, and recently, City of London Police horses were used to break up the soil!
After four hours at the BWG, we drove to our next location. We drove past many historic buildings, as well as Canary Wharf, which I was elated by! We arrived at one of the last actively industrial remnants in Docklands, and stumbled upon the curious case of the Bow Creek. The mouth of the River Lea marks the historic county boundary between Middlesex and Essex, and the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham. It meanders a number of times before meeting the Thames at Trinity Buoy Wharf, where Michael Faraday’s lighthouse is situated. These meanders result in two spits: the Leamouth Peninsula, where a huge development, London City Island, is taking place; and the Bow Creek Ecology Park. It was a short walk from the industrial area and over to the Ecology Park, which was a shipyard and ironworks in the days of the East India Company, and prominent companies such as the Samuda Bros and Thames Ironworks built their ships there.
Now, it is managed by the Lee Valley Park, and is home to many common bird species. The neighbouring Bow Creek has Sand Martins on its banks in summer, and occasional Redshanks in winter. While we were there, there were Little Egrets, Cormorants, Mallards and a variety of gull species. The reedbeds within the Ecology Park have Water Scorpions, Starlings congregate on the pylons overhead, and Kestrels hunt on the railsides: the DLR railway bridge is the dominating feature in the Ecology Park and the trains are very noisy, but the birds are not disturbed at all!
At four o’ clock in the afternoon we filmed a few walking shots, of myself walking through a tunnel underneath Newham Way. For our final location we headed to East India Dock Basin, managed by Tower Hamlets Council as a nature reserve. In the 19th Century, ships, presumably built at Leamouth, would come from the East unloading their sorrel, oregano, saffron and coriander, and several of the local roads are named after these. These docks used to be much larger, but the ever-changing Canary Wharf and developments around Docklands were built over a sizeable area of it. The nearby Saffron Avenue Pond, itself a designated wildlife site, has a population of Small Red-eyed Damselfly; they have recently established itself as a breeding species in the UK.
At the Basin, the star species is the Teal, a tiny duck which travels in large numbers to the Basin from the Baltic and Siberia, to spend each winter in Tower Hamlets! There was a sizeable number of them that afternoon, as well as migratory Cormorants, and Herons. There is a small meadow too, where wild celery grows. Another notable bird that can be found in the area is the Black Redstart: a relative of the Robin, it nests in brownfield sites, of which there were many in Postwar Britain. Over the following decades the population in Docklands grew bigger, and today they still benefit from derelict warehouses, and the many green roofs that have appeared in Inner London. I saw my first Black Redstart on Piccadilly, so keep your eyes peeled for them! We ended the day by filming opposite the O2 Arena and Greenwich Peninsula, and as the sky became darker, Docklands became an array of red and yellow lights.
The reserve is an important site for Teal, as well as Herons, gulls and Little Egrets
Filming with Autumnwatch was an unbelievable experience, and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. I would like to thank Matthew, Hannah, Muhali and Bruce from the BBC Springwatch team for this wonderful opportunity!