Bird watching in London

IAN COLLINS High summer is a highpoint in the bird-watcher's calendar - with Ian Collins finding much to twitch about in the parks and on the lakes and rivers of London.


It may seem strange to advocate a twitchy trip to London for those who live in bird-blessed East Anglia, but there's a truly capital selection of wild and ornamental waterfowl in particular.

Put another way, an amazing range of ducking and diving can be seen on the park lakes and garden ponds across the city this summer.

A mallard successfully hatched and fledged a dozen ducklings in a windowbox of my 12th-floor Barbican balcony three summers back, waddling with her brood beneath the fire doors and round the block with pauses at more than a dozen washing-up-bowl ponds and feeding stations.

Residents on lower floors - without the protective concrete parapet at my sky-high level - call a Duck Hotline at the Corporation of London when broody mallards plant themselves among the bedding plants.

Then, before these dim mother ducks respond to the call of nature, and tip hatchlings over the side and into thin air where they expect deep water, a wildlife officer calls and removes ma mallard and eggs to the safety of a ground-level nursery.

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After happy hatchings, the parties are then released on to the Barbican lakes - where, truth to tell, they have to take their chances with predatory gulls, geese and herons (and even with marauding mallard drakes).

Life is far safer in my penthouse aviary - where a swarm of bluetits has also fledged, and where I have high hopes for wrens next spring. Then again, mallard have also nested successfully on the roofs of Canada House and Baker Street Tube station.

In truth, what makes me all of a twitch at the minute is the London spectacle of peregrines - with at least six pairs now breeding in the inner city, just as red kites did in medieval times and may yet do again.

A pair using the top floor of the tallest Barbican tower like a cliff ledge raised two broods of two chicks last year. This year they've fledged just a couple of offspring given the peculiarities of our 2007 weather.

But the sight of adults and adolescents soaring and stooping above our heads like feathered Red Arrows is a delight to all local residents and visitors save for pigeonkind.

Come to think of it, I haven't seen a feral pigeon for quite some time…

How I'd love to see a black redstart which flourished amid the buddleia and willow herb of London bombsites in the 1950s and 1960s. Alas, the dramatic development of recent decades has pushed back the rare summer migrant to rather more natural rocky wastelands.

But the great news is the return of the Cockney sparrow. I may see four or five where there used to be 40 or 50, but they are back from the brink of inner-city extinction. Now they almost outnumber greenfinches on my window feeders.

One of the joys of writing my new book Bird on a Wire - about the life and art of the now-East-Anglian sculptor Guy Taplin - was the excuse to spend a lot of time with my binoculars in the near 500-acre nature reserve of Regent's Park.

For this was where Guy, a hippy dropout turned would-be Buddhist monk, was appointed Bird Man in the 1970s.

One arm of the boating lake, closed to hired craft, leads to Hanover Island and an enclosed and woody area in which up to 80 varieties of ornamental waterfowl have been bred and nurtured since the 1920s. From here they are taken to other royal parks and most especially to St James's Park.

The watchful Bird Man of Regent's Park - current incumbent Tony Duckett posts a website bulletin of daily sightings - feeds and nurtures his charges.

Guy would take the eggs from dozens of nestboxes each spring and summer and place them under broody hens. Now there are artificial incubators.

With wild species also aided alongside the ornamental kind, this helping hand has been extended to birds such as scaup, mandarin, whistling duck, and teal of the marbled or cinnamon varieties. You can see them all on the lake.

“For me waterfowl are the essence of wildness,” Guy told the Evening Standard in 1978. “In winter some of the geese that land here have come from Siberia. They haven't seen a single person and suddenly they are in the middle of London, a city full of cement and noise.”

He'd take injured birds to the medical team at nearby London Zoo. He remembers a jar containing the teeth of Guy the Gorilla. Once, wandering into an unstaffed operating theatre, he came upon the anaesthetised form of a tiger prostrated on a table. “It must have been the tea break,” he says.

It was here that this Bird Man fledged into Britain's foremost sculptor of birds from driftwood - first whittling on a whim a mallard drake using very basic tools and a piece of timber picked up from the Thames foreshore.

Untrained in art, and still hopeless at DIY carpentry, he has little idea how he does it - and thinks that with persistence and patience and intense observation any lover of birds can do what he has done.

When asked how we might make a Taplinesque duck he replies: “Well, you get a piece of wood and you chop everything off that don't look like a duck.” Righto!

Maybe most of us should just stick to looking - not least on trips to Regent's and St James's parks.

Here - or on nearby canals, rivers and reservoirs - you can find half of the 20 or so ducks common to Britain or regular visitors.

Let's start with the mallard. The male has a dark green head and neck, white neck ring, purple breast and grey body. The female, very plain with brownish feathers and orange bill, has a louder quack to make up for her duller plumage.

They'll eat almost anything - seeds, berries, plants, insects, frogs, shellfish, even small birds and the odd mammal. Plus, of course, bird food. But please feed ducks sparingly. Uneaten food attracts rats and poisons water.

Other brilliant drakes to note are pochard (stocky diver, pale grey with rusty red head and neck and black breast and tail), tufted duck (black and white diver with jaunty crest), wigeon (chestnut head and neck with yellow forehead, pink breast and grey body) and teal (chestnut head with broad green eyepatches and black-edged yellow tail).

But brightest of all is the mandarin - an oriental escapee from majestic collections and now a rather common Londoner.

Orange 'whiskers' either side of the face, pink bill, purple breast, golden flanks and orange tail 'sails' make this exotic exhibitionist a solo London show.