Urban Birding in North London

Words: David Lindo

Pic: Piero Cruciatti/Alamy

Pic: Piero Cruciatti/Alamy

London is now a National Park City and we are celebrating the ornithological riches within the capital. North London is blessed with a multitude of sites in which to seek the pursuit of birding happiness. Several of these sites are well known, such as Hampstead Heath. More woodland than heath, this ancient 790-acre park and local nature reserve has had more than its fair share of great species.

Patronised by none other than Bill Oddie, it has recorded oddities including Little Bittern and Golden Oriole and, in the 1980s, a national rarity in the fleeting shape of a Lesser Kestrel. More usual birds here are the regular breeding warblers such as Chiffchaff and Blackcap.

The active management of the habitats around the pond has resulted in breeding Kingfisher and Reed Warbler, as well as wintering Water Rail and once, even a Bittern. Naturally, the ‘Heath’, as it is locally known, is popular with members of the public, particularly during the summer months, so choose your visiting times wisely.

Just to the east is another North London hotspot: Highgate Cemetery. It is one of the capital’s famous ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries and is split in two by a road. It is a lovely wooded burial ground containing some scarce urban flora like Great Horsetail and Prickly Sedge.

Bird-wise, expect the usual array of woodland denizens, including Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers, along with resident Tawny Owl.

On the outskirts of Central London lies the unlikely beacon that is Regent’s Park. Long frequented by birders, it, along with the adjoining Primrose Hill, marks the start of the migration flyway, which is named the North London Heights – coined in the 1950s by the likes of Eric Simms, the late sound recordist and an original urban birder.

He and his colleagues were the first to notice the hordes of Chaffinch, Meadow Pipit and other autumn passerines traversing north. Indeed, Regent’s Park really does come into its own during the migration periods, with Wheatear, Whinchat, Redstart and both ‘common’ flycatchers a given.

Other passage migrants to be expected include Tree Pipit and Ring Ouzel, with Wood Warblers occasionally making an appearance, too.

Regent’s Park covers an area of 396 acres and is fairly flat. Most of the landscape consists of pretty mundane playing fields and manicured gardens. The main areas to zone in on when in the area include the Community Wildlife Garden, the open gorse and bramble area and the boating lake, that also houses a small heronry.

The riparian vegetation has enticed breeding Reed Warblers and singing Sedge and Cetti’s Warblers, while Water Rails creep unobtrusively in winter.

Due to its central location and proximity to London Zoo, masses of people use it and it is a wonder that anything is ever found. However, if you want to talk about rarities, the birders at Regent’s Park could engage you for some time. Scarcities, such as Leach’s Petrel (found dead), Blue-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, Montagu’s Harrier, Black-eared Wheatear and Yellow-browed Warbler have all graced the site. But perhaps the most surprising random find was the recent autumnal Cory’s Shearwater, that winged its way overhead. To date, it is one of only two UK inland records.

One place that must be on any North London birding itinerary is the Welsh Harp, otherwise known as Brent Reservoir. It is a very old reservoir, having been first constructed in the 1800s and quickly became a top spot, initially for hunting.

In those days, many species were procured for taxidermy. The most contentious of these were the two Purple Martins obtained during September 1842. The record was subsequently rejected because, at the time, this North American swallow had never before been found in the UK.

It remained a pipe dream for British birders until an immature was found on Ness, Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, in September 2004. However, more legitimate rarities at The Brent have included Britain’s first ever Iberian Chiffchaff, discovered singing in 1972.

A routine visit would result in sightings of Shoveler, Great Crested Grebe, Kingfisher plus, during the summer months, typical warblers.

But always be on the lookout for something more unusual. The reservoir has 24-hour access around the grassland and lightly wooded areas that surround the reservoir itself and there are a couple of hides from which to view the watery habitat. To obtain keys, contact the Welsh Harp Conservation Group (see panel for website details).

Finally, a nearby site worth paying a speculative visit to is Barn Hill and Fryant Country Park. A contiguous area sited just north-west of Brent Reservoir, Barn Hill is a piece of woodland that, in yesteryear, harboured breeding Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Nowadays, it is woefully underwatched and is a place that could definitely hold a few surprises.

Across the road is Fryant Country Park, an expanse of grassland surrounded by suburbia and crisscrossed with ancient hedgerow spanning back to the medieval ages. Again, this is a site that is crying out for coverage, as it’s likely that some interesting birds are to be found there.

Key bird species: Tawny Owl

Pic: Phil Aylen

Pic: Phil Aylen

Of all the species to be found in urban Britain, the Tawny Owl has the accolade of being the most unnoticed. Needless to say, few of us are ever that far from one, but owing to their nocturnal habits, most city dwellers go through their lives blissfully unaware of their existence.

Tawny Owls are found throughout Europe (although famously not in Ireland), North Africa, as well as into central Russia. Famed for its exceptional night vision, it has now been found that its sight is no better than ours. It’s the bird’s amazing hearing that is key to its hunting success. And when it comes to food, its normal quarry are small rodents but in urban areas small birds are also on the menu.

Tawny Owls belong to the genus Strix, that contains around 15 species, including the fearsome Ural Owl. In common with most members of the genus, the Tawny Owl is not to be messed around with, especially around its nest site, as the late pioneering photographer Eric Hosking found, much to his chagrin. He famously lost an eye to the claw of an attacking owl!

More info on birdwatching in North London:

London Bird Club – sightings / Welsh Harp Conservation Group

Reference guides: Collins Bird Guide – Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney & Dan Zetterström / The Birds of London – Andrew Self (Bloomsbury)

This article was first published in the October 2018 issue of Bird Watching