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Thursday 27 April 2017

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Urban birdwatching is taking off

As the best birdwatching spots in London are revealed, Joe Shute learns how several species have found unexpected new habitats in our cities.

Goldfinch in tree
Bill of fare: a goldfinch. Urban areas 'can provide safe havens for creatures that are suffering elsewhere,’ says Simon King of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts  Photo: Alamy

Twelve spotted woodpeckers, 24 wrens, 44 robins, eight nuthatch, four treecreepers and a goldfinch. Birds. The branches teem with them. As dawn breaks over woodland a couple of hundred metres from the A1, Archway Road, a Hitchcockian scene erupts.

“People say you never get anything but pigeons in the capital,” says David Darrell-Lambert, the 40-year-old chairman of the London Bird Club, as we pick our way carefully over exposed tree roots in the half-light. “But it’s amazing what you see here these days.”

Darrell-Lambert, a professional ornithologist, is in Highgate’s Queen’s Wood conducting a survey on behalf of a volunteer group that runs the site. He is a north London boy, born and bred. Over the past 31 years as a birdwatcher he has witnessed the spectacular arrival of new species in the heart of the capital. Now everything, from tawny owls to parakeets, populate London’s green spaces. An estimated 20 breeding pairs of peregrine falcons – virtually wiped out in the Second World War as a result of their predilection for carrier pigeons – live high-up on tower blocks, Tate Modern and the Houses of Parliament. Red kites now swoop down on the capital from West London, scything through congestion charge zones in search of prey.

The shift is part of a pattern across the country. Animals are creeping closer to our urban heartlands and a new army of wildlife watchers is springing up in response.

But all is not rosy. While some thrive in towns and cities, there is a growing threat to rural habitats. The relaxation of planning laws, an unprecedented need for new housing and increasingly intensive farming methods are all feared to be having a catastrophic effect on wildlife in the countryside. The RSPB’s latest farmland bird index shows numbers have more than halved since the Seventies, with “no sign of bottoming out”. Species including nightingales – whose numbers have halved since 1995 to 6,700 breeding pairs – skylarks, spotted flycatchers, starlings and house sparrows are all in serious decline.

“The British countryside is under tremendous threat,” says Simon King, president of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts. “One of the great reasons for the decline of the British songbirds is the loss of habitat. Gardens are a phenomenal reserve. If you take the acreage, it’s bigger than all the national nature reserves in Britain put together. A well-managed garden offers a fabulous variety of habitats. But that doesn’t offset what is happening in a rural environment. It’s an interesting dichotomy that the urban areas can provide safe havens for creatures that are suffering elsewhere.”

Back in Queen’s Wood, a robin bursts into song. The bird, one of several species bucking the trend whose numbers are actually on the rise, is always the first to start the dawn chorus. According to Darrell-Lambert, who is accompanied on the survey by trainee ornithologist Chris Langsdon, its scratchy stop-start tones sound like Beethoven’s Fifth.

We trudge deeper into the darkness of the ancient woodland. A police siren drowns out the robin’s song. I am glad for the company. “It can be scary being out in the woods on your own,” agrees Darrell-Lambert, whose job means he regularly leaves his wife and two children in order to head out all night conducting bird surveys. “You do see some strange things. Once in Holland Park at about 4am I saw two very smartly dressed young men in tweed walking out of a bush together — that was a bit startling! I’ve also been stopped driving around Buckingham Palace by terrorism officers and had my car searched.

“I’ve been birdwatching for 31 years. There’s a mix of people now. You’ve young people getting a social scene out of it, and people who just live and breathe bird-spotting. There are a couple of thousand 'birders’ in London – but you do get some headcases.

“There can be tension, people have their own patches. Some are very protective and say you don’t bird on someone else’s patch. People get very competitive.”

The day is brightening with the wood coming alive. The scattergun call of the wren intermingles with electronic-sounding bursts from blue tits and fat cooing wood pigeons. Green and great spotted woodpeckers drum a constant beat on the oak and hornbeam trees. A tawny owl hoots from deep within its den. As he speaks, Darrell-Lambert is constantly stopping and jerking his head to look at birds – a habit he says his wife finds infuriating.

“I love the thrill of the chase,” he says after spotting a goldcrest, Britain’s smallest bird, hopping beneath a holly bush. “Using the skills available to you to find that bird. Isn’t that enough?”

It is 10 miles, as the crow flies, to Hammersmith’s Charing Cross Hospital. Peregrine falcons set up home on the top floor of this Seventies tower block in 2007. They have nested there ever since. The raptors – which can exceed speeds of 150mph – have adapted to city life by feasting on feral pigeons and learning to use street lights to attack at night. Now a very urban threat is on the horizon. It is feared the building will soon be sold to developers and demolished for housing.

“They have settled on this building because it is actually fantastic for them,” says Nathalie Mahieu, a 47-year-old volunteer who helps monitor the peregrines. “They chose the site because it acts like a cliff face. There are not too many buildings suitable for peregrines in this area.”

Mahieu moved to London from Normandy in 1993 and says she volunteered to look after the peregrines after realising she had become cut off from nature. She is one of many city-dwellers now helping document the sea change taking place in our ecology through blogs, books and, appropriately, tweets.

“When I was a child growing up I was always in the countryside, gathering fossils and things like that,” she said. “Then, when I moved here I lost that. About 10 years ago I suddenly realised this wonderful wildlife, the cemetery, the Thames nearby and the London Wetland Centre.

“I have been looking after the birds since 2007. Usually I can see them from my front room. It is the first thing I look for in the morning. I wouldn’t say I feel responsible for them because they are wild birds. But I do think about them a lot.”

As she speaks, we gaze, through binoculars, 15 storeys up at the grey-specked predators on their perch. Their yellow talons clutch the side of the ledge as they stare intently over Fulham Palace Road, scanning between the buses and stream of pedestrians for their next meals.

“It’s extremely important to feel that harmony and connection with nature,” Mahieu says. “When you are surrounded by traffic and buildings, it is so easy to lose.”

London Bird Club is part of London Natural History Society: information on lnhs.org.uk, and Twitter: @LondonBirdClub. On Wednesday, Dr Richard Bullock, Chief Ecologist of the WWT London Wetland Centre will talk about the reserve in Barnes (voted the UK’s favourite nature reserve) at The LookOut/Isis Education Centre, Hyde Park, in the first of a new series introducing the best birding spots in London.

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