The spring in London's Wetland

London's bio-diversity treasure trove comes alive in Spring

2 MAY 2014,
Spring in London
Spring in London

I am reminded that the arithmetic of life is savage as I watch a Great Tit ripping apart a caterpillar. This caterpillar will not go through the magic of metamorphosis to fly as beautiful butterfly. In the natural world millions must die so that a few can live. In Spring, the renewal of life is in evidence. A Robin, with its startling red breast is collecting nesting material and looks at me head on with a beak full of mosses and lichens it is collecting for lining a nest. A Carrion Crow inscribes the air overhead carrying a stick for its clumsy and bulky nest atop a tree. A pot-bellied Mistle Thrush is feeding with urgency on one of the lawns.

It is mid April, a gloriously bright day, but with a chill nip to the air at fifteen degrees centigrade. A breeze catches the Bluebells which sway gently. The green lawn is spangled with circular discs of yellow. Fresh Dandelion flowers gleam in the sunlight like gold coins strewn on the lawn. At the edge of the path, a thicket of White dead Nettle is in flower. A pair of Tufted Duck are swimming in synchrony. The male, decked in black and white fixes its beady golden eye on me. A warbler calls from atop a tree lining the banks of a pond. I recognise my first Willow Warbler for the season. Chiffchaffs, a similar warbler had arrived earlier from its winter migration to Africa.

I am at the London Wetland Centre, a bio-diversity treasure trove on the edge of one of the world’s greatest capitals. This wetland was the vision of Sir Peter Scott, who founded the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT). In the 1980s I used to bird watch at the Thames Reservoirs in Barnes. They were large concrete lined reservoirs with lawns on their embankments manicured by sheep. They were nevertheless good for certain migrant birds especially waterfowl. Then one day, I was told by one of the Thames Water staff that my access to the site under a bird watching permit will be suspended as the WWT were taking it over and developing it as a nature reserve. The end result has been spectacular. It’s not just the wildlife that is special, but the London Wetland Centre is a role model in maintaining and managing a nature reserve for public engagement.

Anyone who wishes to build a nature reserve should visit this location and see how it works. Its open 365 days a year with a fully fledged restaurant, has bird watching hides which re-defined what a bird watching hide is and has a program of activities and talks, the latter in its auditorium. It pathways are pram friendly and is a favourite with parents who bring children for a stroll or to see the birds and otters in the captive collections. It is also a spectacular example of how with vision and corporate support, how a city can win back some lost wildlife to complement the steel and glass of the city with vistas of Phragmites reed beds swaying in the breeze, woodland rides alive to the spring chorus of singing Blackcaps and Wrens, ponds, lagoons and wader scrapes and meadows.

All of these carefully managed to cater for different ecological niches creating a location which is relatively super-rich in wildlife. When I take visitors to the area known as Wildside, they are surprised that such a site can be so close to the busy hub of Hammersmith. In the reed beds, Cetti’s Warblers sing throughout the year, their song, a mix of explosive notes, suddenly ringing out, but the author remaining concealed. The whinnying calls of Little Grebes ring out in spring and as we move into summer, the reed beds are alive with the churring of Reed Warblers that have returned to breed.

It is spring now and the resident birds have already moved into top gear with nest building frenzy. I pause near the Berkeley Bat House and look out over the lagoon. A few Common Teal are still present, their number reduced as the winter migrants have left to northern latitudes where the ice has now melted. A pair of Canada Geese honk loudly and sway their heads affirming their bond as they plan to raise a family. An explosively loud trill breaks out behind me from a long hedge formed of dead wood. In nature reserves, trees and bushes are regularly cut back as part of interventionist management and the wood is kept on site as brush piles as habitat for insects and other invertebrates. They also make convenient sunning spots for reptiles including the Common Lizard which has been introduced here. I see the author of the call, a tiny Wren. It sings and the effort seems to send its whole body into a shiver. I wonder why this bird has evolved to sing so loudly and to tremble at the same time. The Wren then also engages in holding up and quivering its wings. I suspect this may be a ‘spring extra’, as it is pair bonding with a female. I watch them scurrying into the brush pile carrying dead leaves. They can be quite mouse-like at times when they scurry about on the woodland floor.

From the woodland edge I hear Chiffchaffs calling, rendering their onomatopoeic ‘chiff chaff chiff chaff’. A sweeter melodious song fills the air and I crane my neck to look upwards and I spy a male Blackcap with its black cap. The female with her red cap is not far away. In winter too, these warblers may be present here but those are wintering birds from the European mainland. They would have returned to the mainland by Spring. The Blackcaps I see singing are probably birds which have wintered in the warmer climate of tropical Africa and have returned to breed.

I hear the excited calls of Lapwings fending off Carrion Crows from the islands on the lake opposite the Peacock Tower hide. They are gorgeously dressed in metallic green with a jaunty crest. Once a common bird in the UK, their numbers have dramatically dropped with changes in land use in the countryside. The London Wetland is probably the nearest to the capital for seeing this bird. From the first floor of the Peacock Tower I look over the water and the grazing marsh. The water levels have been lowered to create islands for ground-nesting birds to nest their nests protected by the surrounding water. This does not stop aerial predators like the Carrion Crows. I watch one being dive bombed by three Lapwings as it explores the muddy shoreline.

In the water, a few Shoveller are still present. The males with their green heads engage in energetic head bobbing, a display to the female. It also doubles up as a display to other males to keep away from their girl. One male Shoveller does not heed the head bobbing and approaches the female of a pair. Her male furiously lunges at the encroaching male and stabs at it with it curiously spoon shaped bill. A brief chase ensues and with the intruder driven off the male returns to his consort. A pair of Common Redshank call, their calls are a signature of coastal wetlands. One bird calls loudly and engages in a display of wing fluttering and then in a flash mates with the female. They fly around with the white wing bar distinctive in an otherwise nondescript brown plumage. It is no accident that wading birds can be seen in this site although it is relatively inland. The profiles of the water bodies have been built and the water levels managed to maximise habitats for differing requirements of birds and other wildlife. Its remarkable how many different families of birds can be seen in this one site right beside London.

It is getting late and I head back to the restaurant for a pre-departure coffee. I pass Marsh Marigolds in a blaze of golden yellow adding a splash of colour to the edges of ditches.. A Magpie is now hunting on the verge, the pram traffic having died down. A Green Woodpecker’s laughing ‘ha ha’ call drifts through the trees. I smile. This is simply magic; all of this amazing wildlife so close to the capital. I had taken the bus from Hammersmith, but for my return I will walk 20 minutes along the River Thames to Hammersmith and tube into the bustling metropolis, to a different world.

For more information on the London Wetland Centre:
http://www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/london

Inspiration to the private sector:
The London Wetland Centre was the inspiration for an award winning Eco Luxury hotel in Sri Lanka which emulated the conservation organizing by building a private wetland reserve from reclaimed agricultural land. http://www.jetwinghotels.com/jetwingviluyana/