It is the last weekend of March and the sun has come out on a day which is relatively mild with the mercury around 10 degrees Celsius. I am standing on a little grassy meadow edged with a thicket of trees covered below with a dense mat of thorny Bramble. Concealed from view, on a short tree a Song Thrush is belting out in full song. Its calls are strident, determined and authoritative. The song is highly variable as if it was improvising and making things up on the spot. But over a period of time, one can detect that it has basic components which are being repeated. I even detect an unusual component, something that seems to be borrowed from the screech of the invasive Ring-necked Parakeets which Londoners have become familiar with. A short while earlier, at the nearby Burgess Park, on the trees lining one boundary I had seen parakeets inspecting nesting holes. The Song Thrush is a beautiful singer that can be melodic. But today, there is a sense of urgency and l think of the song as powerful rather than melodic. It feels as if a rock concert is being played out at maximum volume. I am thrilled to be listening to it. I am around thirty-five minutes walk away from the imposing Shard, an iconic building in London. But here in the tiny Cobourg Road Nature Area, I am a world apart from the glass and steel London which lie to the North of where I am. In one of the largest cities in the world, it is a privilege to hear a Song Thrush sing and feel that connection with nature.
The Cobourg Road Nature Area is a tiny strip of land which nature has been allowed to reclaim. It is a few minutes' walk away from the large and busy Burgess Park which is set around a large lake. The nature area is in-between and parallel to Cobourg Road (which borders Burgess Park) and Trafalgar Avenue. It is a minute’s walk away from the very busy Old Kent Road. Nobody on this busy road will be able to imagine that there is such a tranquil oases a minute’s walk away. This precious fragment of nature is at most a couple of hundred meters long and people who are using the pedestrian walkway that runs through it will walk its length in around a minute. Several people pass me and I suspect they realise little how much is there to be seen and heard if you step onto the grassy verges and take time to listen.
Another beautiful, bubbling song alerts me that another fine songster has returned from Africa, to uplift the British spring. I look at the shrubs which are still bare and leafless after winter. This makes it considerably easier to pick out the warblers which have returned to their summer quarters for breeding. I pick out a Blackcap, this is a male, with a black cap as the name suggests. Females will have a red cap. I see another warbler flitting high in the canopy. Rather helpfully, it gives out a few stuttering notes that help me identify it confidently as a Chiffchaff. This and the Willow Warbler are the two common, green coloured warblers which breed in Britain. They are what birders refer to as the Phylloscopus warblers. For a long time, they were only considered a genus but based on recent molecular work they have now been elevated to have their own family, the Phylloscopidae. This family of leaf warblers is difficult to identify on the basis of plumage only. Many new species in the family continue to be described, especially from the tropics, the taxonomic splits aided by the study of their DNA and vocalisations. They are restless birds. Later in the day, I was exploring the wild patch in the nearby Burgess Park. Another Chiffchaff descended from the trees as it foraged and came to within a few feet of me and to almost eye level. Much to my chagrin, it moved too fast for me to photograph it when it was so close, but I took several images as it flitted about some distance away picking off insects.
It was spring and a pair of Great Tits were collecting nesting material. Blue Tits were maintaining contact between pairs using their contact call. In the undergrowth, I watched a pair of Robins. Both sexes maintain territories throughout the year. They have a varied and melancholy song and a ‘tic tic’ contact call. One of them was squeaking, this is not what I usually hear and I suspected this contact call was to do with pair bonding as they make arrangements to raise another brood. High overhead, a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers were moving about. A flock of Long-tailed Tits passed through. These are not really tits at all and belong to a different family (the Aegithalidae) to the Blue and Great Tits which are in the family Paridae. The arrival of Long-tailed Tits is always announced by a commotion of calls. It is very heartening that this dainty bird, a social nester, still holds out in urban London.
Wrens are tiny little brown birds that frequent the shrubs layer. Several birds called, their trilling calls disproportionately loud for their size. A small flock of Goldfinches arrived with their ‘plinkng’ flight calls announcing their presence. Their musical song consists of a rapid sequence of notes. It sounds like the song has been recorded and is being played back at a faster speed. Goldfinches are stunning birds with a splash of red around their beaks on a white face and a flash of gold on their wings. Over the last two decades, their numbers and presence have increased in London. However, I suspect, many Londoners who are not familiar with their calls and song are unaware of their presence and will not see them unless they look up. The next day, I visited St Dunstan in the East, a secluded enclave in the square mile. This is a tiny park set around the ruins of St Dunstan’s Church. Bird feeders that have been put out here attracted Goldfinches allowing Londoners eye level views. There is a growing trend to encourage wildlife to return to London so that its people can connect with nature.
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 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.