This article is part of a guide to London from FT Globetrotter
London has plenty of liquid assets — and no, I’m not talking about its financial centres.
The riches I speak of are the growing number of wetland habitats teeming with wildfowl and other avian life. Lockdown restrictions permitting, this is a brilliant time of year to get out and spot them.
As the capital expanded, its waterways were regarded as an inconvenience: rivers were culverted underground, reservoirs fenced off from view and canals and urban watercourses became too polluted for wildlife to thrive.
The good news is that a watery revolution has been taking place (should we call it a splashback?). Rivers hidden underground are being “daylighted” again, reservoirs are being reborn as nature reserves and canals cleaned up.
One sure sign that aquatic life is returning is the growing numbers of cormorants to be found inland. Last weekend, I watched one diving for fish in the Hertford Union Canal near Hackney Wick as traffic on the Eastway thundered overhead. Waiting for it to bob up again with a silvery fish wriggling in its beak was more thrilling than anything you could stream on Netflix.
On the south-western side of the capital, the London Wetland Centre in Barnes (currently closed due to Covid-19 restrictions) has over 100 acres of disused concrete reservoirs that have been transformed into an oasis for all kinds of wildlife.
In my corner of north-east London, we are spoilt for choice. In 2017, the Walthamstow Wetlands opened to the public — the first time in 150 years that this group of working reservoirs was made accessible to those without wings. Still open under lockdown, it is home to thousands of waterbirds and London’s largest heronry. Dozens of grey herons are soon expected to start building their treetop nests on islands in the middle of the reservoirs.
Plenty of old filter beds along the Lea Valley corridor have been “rewilded” to attract avian and aquatic life, and a new wetlands area has been created in the Olympic Park, where recent winter migrants included a bicycling prime minister.
In north-west London, Kabir Kaul, a 15-year-old conservationist and RSPB Youth Council member, reports plenty of enthralling sightings.
“Winter has brought many migratory wildfowl to the UK to feed, including gadwall, shoveler and teal,” he says. “This year, due to strong easterly winds, there have been unusually high numbers of migratory Russian white-fronted geese landing across the south-east too.”
In Kabir’s local patch, Ruislip Lido — a 60-acre lake — is a haven for wildfowl at this time of year, and he also enjoys visiting reservoirs in the Colne Valley, where he sees many of the five birds listed below. When lockdown restrictions lift, he hopes to travel eastward to one of his favourite birding sites, the Bow Creek Ecology Park, home to cormorants, redshanks and all kinds of gulls. The nearby East India Dock Basin supports a fairly large population of migratory teal, which travel from Siberia each year.
“When watching waterbirds, stay a safe distance away to avoid disturbing them,” he says. “You could also bring a notebook to record your sightings, and submit them to Greenspace Information for Greater London (GIGL), which helps to create an understanding of the distribution of waterbirds in London. Most importantly, stay local and carry a pair of binoculars with you.”
If lockdown prevents you from travelling to one of the bigger urban-wetland centres, many of the birds listed below can be spotted along canal towpaths, rivers (including the Thames) and even park lakes.
My best friend’s little girl calls little egrets “ballerina birds” on account of their frilly white plumage and leggy gracefulness. If you’re lucky enough to witness one landing or taking off on water, you’ll see exactly what she means.
Similar to a heron, but smaller and whiter, little egrets are becoming much more common inland and can regularly be spotted hunting for prey in London’s urban waterways. They also use their large yellow feet to dance on the mud to stir up bugs.
Large numbers of these dabbling ducks winter in the UK, with some resident all year round. There have been plenty of sightings in urban watercourses and parks across London this winter — with its highly defined beige, black and white plumage, I always feel it’s a duck that has been shopping in Burberry. Smaller than a mallard, they often follow in the wake of coots to gobble up whatever pond and river weed they’ve dislodged.
An elusive bird — a blue flash may be all you see. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed several kingfisher sightings in central London since the first lockdown began. The muddy banks of the River Lea along the eastern boundary of Hackney Marshes are ideal breeding grounds for kingfishers. Sadly, during the first UK lockdown, their habitat was invaded by hundreds of “wild swimmers” who gleefully ignored all the signs volunteers like me put up to try and stop them. The swimmers are long gone, and the kingfishers are once again in evidence. Look for shallow water, with overhanging branches that they can perch on. However, to spot one you will require patience and luck.
Some call this marvellous little bird “the washerwoman” as they are invariably spotted near water — and they’re becoming more common in urban areas. Many internally migrate to the south of England in the winter from northern parts of the UK.
Urbanites will probably be more familiar with the pied wagtail, which happily bobs along in parks and car parks alike. Confusingly, the grey wagtail’s distinguishing feature is not so much its grey back but its yellow belly. It is not to be confused with the yellow wagtail, which is much yellower and rarer.
Fascinating to observe, they do not stay still for long. This summer, I watched them hovering like hummingbirds over the surface of the water, snatching flies. And on Christmas Day, deep within the concrete jungle in central Hackney, a pair landed in a huge pool of water that had accumulated on the flat roof of a neighbouring block of flats. What a gift.
Found on park lakes and canals all over London, Egyptian geese are formally classified as a self-sustaining feral species. They were introduced as an ornamental bird in the 17th century, but escapees from private collections have thrived and multiplied thanks to warmer winters.
Like London’s invasion of ring-necked parakeets, I can’t help but love them.
Their piratical eye patch gives them the appearance of a goose that’s overdone the smokey eye look, accessorised with contrasting plumage and bad attitude.
Very vocal, they’re great fun to watch on and off the water, with much honking, squabbling and flapping of wings. There’s a couple in Victoria Park in east London who seem intent on destroying Ernö Bartha’s sculptures in the lake. This summer, I also found a pair happily honking away on top of an abandoned paddle-board floating in a canal.
Which birds have you spotted in London recently? Tell us in the comments
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