It’s half an hour before dusk on a winter evening and I hear the distinctive call of a Song Thrush from the leafless canopy. In Britain, Song Thrush populations have crashed precipitously, and it is now on the Red List. I am in an area of East London known as Russia Dock Woodlands. It is not far from the River Thames and includes an area demarcated as the Stave Hill Ecology Park. Grass meadows, ponds and secondary woodland have been created in the area. It is a precious pocket of biodiversity in an area that would otherwise be dominated by housing. In the 19th century, this area would have had an industrial feel. Many of the warehouse on the waterfront of the nearby River Thames have now been converted to expensive apartment blocks.
It’s the last weekend of February and mild temperatures of around 12 degrees Celsius have brought out a number of people to spend time outdoors. London has seen a difficult twelve months and at the time of my visit, was in the third lock down it has experienced since Covid-19 appeared in the UK a year ago. The Song Thrush is largely absent from the centre of London and although there are records of it, I do not recollect having seen one in the area which would fall within zones 1 and 2 of London’s tube map. Given that it is a somewhat special bird for Londoners, my wife and I paused to spend some time listening to its rich and complex song. It continued to sing powerfully, one of the most attractive songs of a native British bird. It was unfazed by the activity of people down below on the ground. A lot of young families come to the park and children were shouting as they played. Snatches of conversation of strangers drifted into the woodland as they passed by discussing furlough and redundancies. London’s open spaces provide exercise, fresh air and a place to talk to others. Even more than ever, London’s wild spaces have been needed by the people who live in them.
The Covid-19 pandemic had also changed my routine. I was spending long days hunched over a computer working from home. I had come to treasure the opportunity to be able to go for an exercise walk along the River Thames. During the weekends I was spending more time in the local parks which are within walking distance. I was seeing birds locally that I had not seen before because previously I would have travelled further afield to some of the fantastic urban nature reserves on London’s edges. Another bird I had noticed more in London this winter was the Redwing, a migrant thrush. In winter populations arrive in Britain mainly from Northwest Europe, together with a much rarer subspecies from Iceland. They are typically seen in flocks and the annual London Bird Report carries records of large flocks which number in the few hundreds. They will descend to the ground to feed but are most comfortable in places where there are trees on which they can alight. At Stave Hill, on the trees, I could see small flocks of Redwing. I had also noticed them in Southwark Park, a large park in East London near to and to the south of the Thames, bordering the area between Rotherhithe and Bermondsey. Further to the south, I had also seen them in Burgess Park. Redwings are fairly discreet and most visitors to the park are unlikely to notice them. On good views with a pair of binoculars, a prominent pale eyestripe and a dash of red on the flanks become apparent.
Other winter visitors also appear in London’s urban parks. Small numbers of wintering Shovelers have also been present on cold winter days in both Southwark Park and Burgess Park. Both sexes have a large spatulate bill. The male is especially handsome with a dark green neck and chestnut flanks that contrast with gleaming white underparts. The female is more cryptically coloured in browns, but with subtly beautiful patterning. Of the wintering waterfowl, a highlight for me was a male Goldeneye that arrived in January in Burgess Park. The male is a smart black-and-white duck with a golden eye. Goldeneye can also turn up in Central London parks such as Hyde Park and several weeks earlier I had watched a female in Hyde Park. Thanks to a number of regular observers who visit Hyde Park and share their sightings on social media, I had also visited Hyde Park to see a Russian White-fronted Goose that was mixing with Greylag Geese. London’s parks are also a very good place for photographers to get close to birds that are usually quite wary. A good example being Common Gulls whom I have always found to keep a fair distance from people. They are very different in behaviour to the Black-headed Gulls which allow a close approach. In Hyde Park, Common, Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls that are used to taking the food that is thrown to the waterfowl have become very bold.
I have never been in doubt that London’s open spaces are important reservoirs of urban biodiversity. Over the years the custodians of the local parks have been deliberately introducing wild patches for nature where native plants are allowed to run wild. This creates habitats for beautiful butterflies and other insects which in turn attract native birds. The London Natural History Society has been studying London’s wildlife for over 150 years. London’s parks and wild areas are needed for both wildlife and people and I hope that over time the Royal Parks will allocate even more wild areas within their parks for encouraging native wildlife to re-establish. Londoners should be able to see Britain’s wildlife in their parks and not just in books or on trips to the countryside.