A streak of green flying fast and low is picked up by Mark who is on his first bird-watching walk with the London Bird Club. It is a Green Woodpecker and it obligingly alights on a section of tree trunk unimpeded by branches allowing the group of sixteen people a good view. We can make out that it is a male from the prominent red crown and red malar stripe on its face. After a while, it flies down onto the grass to feed on ants. Unlike other woodpeckers which like to feed on invertebrates on tree bark, the Green Woodpecker likes to descend to the ground to feed on ants. London as with anywhere else in the UK has millions of ants in ant mounds concealed in the soil beneath its grassy meadows. The Green Woodpecker was the grand finale for this walk, one of the many free field events organised by the London Bird Club, a section of the London Natural History Society. We were out in the second week of March 2022, a couple of weeks after England had removed all of its Covid restrictions. This together with the onset of Spring had brought out a good number of people for the birdwatching walk despite a less than promising weather forecast.
But the weather had turned out better than forecast and only a slight drizzle had intervened sporadically for a remarkably good birdwatching session in the two adjoining Central London parks of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. We had started by picking out Stock Doves on a swathe of grass beside what is known as ‘Embassy Row’. The Stock Doves are easily overlooked for feral pigeons. They are tree hole nesters and need stands of old trees. The area bordering the Long Water in Kensington Gardens is managed as a nature reserve with a wild border and several old trees. Kensington Gardens which abuts Hyde Park, is one of the few places in central London where Stock Doves can be found nesting. This is also true of the Jackdaw, a member of the Crow family. The larger and commoner Carrion Crow will build a nest of sticks. But the Jackdaw needs cavities in old trees and is largely absent from Central London. Outside of Kensington Gardens one needs to go to sites such as Hampstead Heath, the London Wetland Centre in Barnes and the old woodlands around Richmond Park to see them. Old woodlands are also needed for the Nuthatch. This is a woodpecker-like small bird, although it belongs to a different scientific family. We could hear the bubbling call of one. Some of Central London’s parks such as Kensington Gardens and Holland Park which have groves of old trees have nuthatches. They are very handsome birds with bluish-grey upperparts and chestnut underparts. Frances O' Sullivan who was leading the group also spotted a Treecreeper, another bird that clambers up the bark of trees in a similar fashion to woodpeckers and nuthatches. This is in yet another scientific family. Treecreepers are cryptically coloured and were it not for their vocalisations and movements would go largely undetected. We were able to observe a well-known behavioural trait of this bird. Treecreepers start at the bottom of a tree and work their way to the top and then fly down to the base of another tree to repeat the pattern.
Another treat was a pair of Mistle Thrushes. The Mistle Thrush is scarce in Central London as it likes parkland, open areas interspersed with large trees. It is bigger and more pot-bellied than the similar Song Thrush. It also has rounder spots on the underparts. A pair were in view and they seemed habituated to people and foraged for worms on the ground, coming within a few meters of us. They were joined by a few smaller thrushes with red flanks and bold pale markings on the face. These were Redwings, a bird from northern latitudes which winters in Britain. As spring gets well underway and temperatures rise they will return north.
The Round Pond and Long Water in Kensington Gardens are good for a number of waterbirds. The continuation of the Long Water towards Hyde Park in the East is known as the Serpentine. This stretch of water differs in having concrete edging unlike the western side which has natural edges. Furthermore, in the part known as the Serpentine, people are allowed on the water for boating. Nevertheless, even the Serpentine is good for waterbirds as they are habituated to people. The ducks on the Long Water included Gadwall, a winter visitor. Some of the Great Cormorants had begun to acquire white flank patches and plumes of fine white hair-like feathers on the face. One bird's face was conspicuously white and we assumed this was one of the birds from the continental subspecies.
In the Round Pond, people are not allowed on the water and the birds have it all to themselves. It is one of the best places in London to get close to gulls such as Common and Lesser Black-backed. Normally these gulls are much warier than the commoner Black-headed Gulls. But here, they allow people to get within a few meters of them. We took the chance to explain to the beginners the differences between the species. In the course of three hours, we saw just over 40 species of birds which is a very good number given how built up the area is around the two parks.
A number of groups in London organise a range of bird-watching and other nature walks as well as day trips by coach or by using public transport to sites further afield from London. Three groups which are especially suited for residents and visitors in Central London are the London Natural History Society, Marylebone Birdwatching Society and the RSPB Central London Local Group.
For visiting nature reserves in London, see also the websites of the London Wildlife Trust and London Wetland Centre. For nature-based activities for children and adults in a Central London Park, see the website of the Holland Park Ecology Centre.