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
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
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!
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
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
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
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 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!