Birding in the urban jungle

Finding a city’s feathered delights, London

It’s a Sunday morning, early on the first London underground service to East Acton in West London. Grey skies are looming. A dawn start is all very well if you’re of the feathered persuasion or are awakening to views of misty fields or a crimson sunrise, but for a mildly hungover human in the capital, it’s a less appealing option. Connecting with nature in the city can at times feel like a contrary pursuit.

Nature is certainly here, though. Rural dwellers may dismiss cities as concrete, cars, pollution and little else, but this is patently untrue: urban landscapes are home to gardens, parks, allotments, nature reserves, meadows, woods and rivers, all teeming with wildlife. There’s even a drive to turn London into a National Park City. It’s worth remembering that a wild thing is no less wild for not being in a pristine setting. Try telling an urban fox otherwise!

One man who has embraced the wild in The Big Smoke and is passionate about sharing his knowledge is David Lindo, alias the Urban Birder. If you watch television, you may have seen him on Springwatch or Countryfile: he’s the man who, in 2015, launched The National Bird Vote, a campaign to find Britain’s favourite bird. (The robin nabbed top spot and the barn owl, with its beautiful heart-shaped face, came in second.)

David, who grew up in West London, was passionate about birds from a young age. No-one else in his family shared his enthusiasm or took him for walks in the countryside. So he was obliged to take up birdwatching in the city, close to home. When he spotted a kestrel at school, his headteacher refused to believe him. He trusted his own instincts though.

From his own experiences he came to realise that you could see anything, anywhere – and yes, even in cities. Which is good news for a novice like myself, who lives in a London suburb. There’s a whole world unfolding in our urban skies and green spaces and I’m eager to explore it. I’m lucky enough to live ten minutes from a nature reserve. The crows, parakeets and magpies that dwell in it are easy to identify, but the sweet-sounding warblers flitting about on the branches? I can only guess.

It’s the same on a spring evening: outside my window there’s a cacophony of squawks, coos and scratchy, throaty calls. Whose voices are these? The dawn chorus is compelling, but it would be lovely to be able to celebrate each member of the choir individually. East Acton doesn’t, I have to be honest, sound promising. When you sign up for a tour with David or his team you could end up anywhere in London from Trafalgar Square to the City to Hampstead Heath – it’s a sort of feathered magical mystery tour. But I’m in for a surprise.

When the train rumbles into the station, I find the Urban Birder standing just outside, next to a vintage Rolls Royce decorated with bird motifs, his ‘birdmobile’. I hop in and he tells me we’re headed for Wormwood Scrubs Park.

“There’s a whole world unfolding in our urban skies and green spaces and I’m eager to explore it. ”

Londoners may associate this with a prison of the same name, but The Scrubs, as locals fondly call it, is actually around 80 hectacres of open land in the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. The wooded areas around the edges are a designated local nature reserve and the grassland and copses all harbour wildlife. There are football pitches too, but on an early Sunday they’re empty and the place is an aural delight – the air rippling with birdsong. Were it not for the industrial towers on the horizon, or the empty football pitches, I

could be in a rural reserve. As we set off, David hands me a pair of binoculars. Within seconds his eyes are scanning the skies and he’s reeling off the names of birds he’s spotted: four goldfinches in formation, several arrow-like swifts flying low and fast, a tiny wren, magpies, crows, a whitethroat, a great tit, song thrushes, a lesser black backed gull, chaffinch, a blackcap and meadow pipits. I can barely keep up. There’s an art to following a bird with binoculars.

‘It takes some practice to get the hand-eye coordination,’ says the Urban Birder, as I struggle to get a fix on the swiftly moving targets. Happily, he has brought with him a field guide and pauses between each sighting to open the pages and show me the birds he has spotted. I tell David that listening to birdsong is one of the pleasures of my life but that I don’t know who is singing what.

He likens the dawn chorus to an orchestra: ‘At first you just enjoy it. Then if you hear it over and over you begin to distinguish the sounds. It’s the same with songs and calls.’ He points out the distinctive trill of the wren, the high-pitched ‘pee-paw, pee-paw’ of the great tit and flute-like melody of the song thrush. I’m still gobsmacked to learn that around 150 species of birds have been found here.

I ask David whether he’s spotted any rare birds in The Scrubs and he gently chides me. ‘Birdwatching isn’t about the pursuit of the unusual. They’re all special.’ He explains that it’s not essential to be able to identify the birds you spot, either. ‘Come out and enjoy the birds, their song, and connect with nature,’ he tells me. ‘That is motive enough. Be a finder, an explorer; not a boring, regimented list-ticker.’ David once found a pair of nesting skylarks here.

‘Over there, in the tall grasses,’ he indicates, pointing to the wildflower meadow. ‘Unfortunately someone walked through it during the breeding season and disturbed the nest. The next time I looked they’d gone.’ As we walk, our eyes glued to the skies, joggers and dog walkers pass by and greet him. The Urban Birder is a well-known figure here.

“‘Be a finder, an explorer; not a boring, regimented list-ticker.’”

‘Hi David, seen anything interesting?’ says one. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Everything.’ It’s a myth that birding is a pursuit only worth practising in the countryside. ‘It doesn’t matter where you are,’ David explains. ‘You just have to see the world as a bird would. If you’re a bird, a high-rise can be a cliff.’ Peregrine falcons, he tells me, have been found nesting on London high-rises: the city now has up to 24 pairs breeding on various elevated structures. And even if your own residence is squashed amidst tower blocks – especially the old-style ones, with ledges – you’ll see birds. ‘And there’s always a park nearby,’ he adds.

David pauses suddenly, and looks skyward. ‘There! Look up. It’s a kestrel being mobbed by a crow.’ A kestrel! I grab my binoculars and home in on a small brown bird being harried and flapped at by the bigger crow. There’s a bit of a stand-off as they eyeball each other on the treetops. I had no idea the kestrel was such a small, modest-looking bird – at least, compared with a crow. Who’d have thought urban land would be home to such a natural drama? We get a fleeting glimpse of a house sparrow flying low over the meadow.

David tells me sparrows need to feed insects to their young. ‘There are fewer now as there aren’t as many insect-friendly plants about,’ he says. ‘Too many people are turning their gardens into patios or only planting exotic or ornamental flowers. People forget that we’re all connected. We’re all part of the ecosystem.’ I’d read that in the town square of Kikinda, Serbia (where David runs a tour) some 750 long-eared owls roost each winter. 750! A parliament of owls! Oh, for an owl sighting, I think, but in a city park? ‘You can see owls here, but you need to come out late,’ David explains.

He admits that owls are rarely seen in The Scrubs, but that all of Britain’s owls – including the barn, little, tawny, longeared and short-eared – have been recorded here. My guide points out a meadow pipit, barely visible to the eye, airborne above the far reaches of the common. How can you tell that’s what it is, I ask him? ‘It’s parachuting down,’ he says. ‘You learn to pay attention to patterns of movement, not just the markings of birds.’ It’s now 10am and we’ve been at it for a couple of hours. David’s enthusiasm is infectious and I’m heartened by the diversity of birdlife in this unlikeliest of settings.

As we’re walking out, he stops in his tracks and peers through his binoculars. ‘It’s a pair of reed buntings,’ he says, pointing to the fringes of the woods. It’s a rare sighting. Until this morning I’d never even known such a bird existed. Now – looking at the vivid black-and-white head and neck of the male and the streaky browns of the female – I’m almost as jubilant as David.