I peer through a telescope to observe a moderate sea breeze scattering a cluster of white feathers onto the salt marsh. A Peregrine Falcon is plucking feathers from its recently caught prey to prepare it for consumption. Beyond the salt marsh is the sea, its expanse broken by the white cliffs on the Isle of Wight. Behind me is a stretch of freshwater marshes which abut farmland and a scattering of holiday cottages. The coastal footpath which runs along Keyhaven Marshes is busy with walkers and cyclists. Keyhaven is a nature reserve in Hampshire on the southern coast of Britain. It is about two and a half hours drive from central London. I had joined a birdwatching day trip by coach, one of a year-round programme of such trips organised by the Marylebone Bird Watching Society (MBS). The MBS is one of two groups which have a central London departure point for such birding trips which are organised at a modest cost for members and non-members.
It turned out I had missed some of the drama. The others in the group had observed two Peregrine Falcons flying around in search of prey. When they stoop, they become the fastest living thing on the planet. One bird had struck a Black-headed Gull. As is often the case, I had fallen behind the group preoccupied by photography and taking a closer look at things around me. Ribbons of water cut through the drab coloured salt marsh on one side of the sea wall we were walking upon. On the other side, were many thickets of Gorse, their tops heavy with clusters of yellow flowers. The nutrient poor grassland was punctured with patches of pink as Thrift, a plant which loves the coastline was in bloom.
I lay down along the sloping sea wall and was photographing the Thrift when a movement in the flowers caught my eye. A small butterfly, a member of the Blue family was prospecting for nectar. It turned around so that the sunlight danced off tiny iridescent scales on its wings and the dark silhouetted butterfly turned a dazzling green. It was a Green Hairstreak, a butterfly, which often eludes people because it is naturally scarce and also very small. The Green Hairstreak was soon gone and my attention turned to a plant common on degraded waste ground and footpaths. Common, but nevertheless elegant patches of Bladder Campion were in bloom, the light from the sea filtering through the petals of their white flowers and also through the intriguing bladder. The bladder is formed by sepals which are normally green and enclose a flower’s petals when it is still in bud. In the Bladder Campion, the sepals form a balloon-shaped structure whose transparent walls are finely net-veined in red. It reminded me of anatomical paintings by Da Vinci where he had peeled back muscle to expose a layer of blood veins. It is not clear to me if this bladder structure provides the plant an advantage over the many tens of thousands of other designs plants have invented for their flowers.
A tiny bird flew in and hovered with rapidly fluttering wings like a butterfly. It had a smart black cap, a rakish yellow bill and a grating call. It was a Little Tern out fishing, in summer plumage evidenced by the dark bill of winter replaced in sunshine yellow. On one of the muddy creeks meandering through the salt marsh into the sea, other fishers were in action. Little Egrets, only a few decades ago were rare visitors to Britain. Now, they are established as regular breeders and Keyhaven Marshes seemed to have one in view whichever way I looked. One bird seemed to dance in the water as it made occasional dashes to chase after fish. A Great Cormorant that was swimming in the water seemed to enjoy more success. Behind them, a flight of Eiders flew low across the sea. A male in shining white followed by three females in muted browns. This is a sea duck, which lives socially. On the landward sides where fresh water was available, a group of wild living New Forest ponies came and drank water. Many freshwater ducks were in the pools. These included Tufted Duck, Wigeon, Mallard, Shoveler and Gadwall. The combination of freshwater and marine habitats, side by side resulted in the group seeing 78 species of birds in the space of six hours. Many waders were also present and agitated Oystercatchers flew around with their piping calls. Redshank, Whimbrel, Curlew and Ringed Plovers were among those present and Andrew Peel leading the group pointed out the differences between Bar-tailed Godwits and Black-tailed Godwits to the beginners in the group.
My favourite wader was the Avocet, an elegant wader with a long and upcurved bill which is the logo of the RSPB; probably the most influential conservation organisation in Europe. On the marshes were sandbank islands on which some Avocets were nesting. They have become accustomed to the footpaths being busy with people, allowing some fine views and being just about in range for some photography with a telephoto lens. I spent time observing an interaction between three birds having some neighbourly friction as they chased each other around the island and provided me with some flight images of their strongly contrasting and minimalist wing colouration.
A number of groups in London organise a range of bird watching and other nature walks as well as day trips by coach or using public transport to sites further afield from London. Three groups which are especially suited for residents and visitors in central London are: London Natural History Society; Marylebone Birdwatching Society; RSPB Central London Local Group.