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Urban Birdwatching

by London based David Lindo - The Urban Birder

Daybreak, Wormwood Scrubs'So, do you see many birds from your prison window then?' That question was the latest in the long line of quips that I have received over the years upon revealing to people I meet my addiction to birding at Wormwood Scrubs.
right - daybreak at Wormwood Scrubs

Wormwood Scrubs - the home of the notorious prison as featured in The Jam's 'Down At The Tube Station At Midnight' and in the original 'Italian Job' -is far more than most people's first thought. No, The Scrubs, as it is locally known, is also an area of parkland lying north of the prison, set in west London around 2 miles north of the Thames and within sight of the Millennium Wheel. Its 180 acres comprises of playing fields, strips and copses of woodland and a fairly large section of grassland.

Aside from the usual summer warblers, resident thrushes and crows, the site also boasts a small breeding population of Meadow Pipits (possibly the closest to central London). It enjoys a healthy annual passage of chats especially Wheatears and Whinchats.

Sometimes after visiting my patch and seeing next to nothing of note, I occasionally ask myself, 'Why am I here birding in the middle of London when I could be watching legions of terns fishing offshore at Dungeness or seeking some rarity in the middle of rural Norfolk?'

House SparrowTo answer that question, I have to go back in time to when I was only five years old living at home in suburban Wembley, north London. At first I was finding 'mummy' birds and 'daddy' birds (starlings and blackbirds respectively). Then I began to notice 'baby birds' and 'uncle birds' (House Sparrows right and Carrion Crows). A whole new world was opening up for me!

Eventually, when I got an old Field Guide there was no stopping me. By the age of 8 I had begun keeping a list of the birds I recognised in my garden - including a few dodgy sightings! I quickly learnt that the best time to observe the action was first thing in the morning before Mrs. Smith next door came out to mow her lawn. The drawback with pre-school early morning birding from my bedroom window was the potential for being labelled as a peeping tom - but that's another story.

When I was 10 I had progressed to my local park that consisted of mown grassland, a river and large areas of undeveloped rough grassland. In those days I took for granted the breeding Skylarks and wintering flocks of Tree Sparrows. It was here that I discovered that migrants like Yellow Wagtail and Wheatear were more regular than I ever imagined.

However, when I reached 13, the appeal of my local park had diminished. The Skylarks and Tree Sparrows had disappeared, the wasteland built upon with the resultant swelling local populace invading the park.

The major turning point in my early urban birding occurred when I read 'Birds Of Town And Suburb' by the ornithologist and broadcaster Eric Simms. I learnt three important lessons:

WhinchatFirstly, look at every bird you see - even if you think you know what it is, because anything can turn up anywhere at anytime and at the very least, you may learn something new about a species that you thought you knew well. Secondly, you can watch birds anywhere, even within a large city and finally, he really got me into "Patch Watching" by introducing me to my next local patch, Brent Reservoir.

By this point I was truly an Urban Birder and despite regular trips to Norfolk, Kent, the Isles of Scilly and the like, I still predominately watched birds in London. There is always something special about seeing birds against the backdrop of urbanisation that we are more accustomed to seeing in wilder environments. I remember racing back from Norfolk after watching Marsh Harriers and Bearded Tits to see a grubby female Garganey that had decided to temporarily reside amongst the semi-submerged abandoned shopping trolleys and dumped scooters at my beloved Brent Reservoir.

Recently, I went to see a Nightjar that chose to inhabit the suburban streets of Teddington, Surrey this summer - a far cry from their usual heathland haunts. I watched in disbelief as it hawked moths under the streetlights and churred from rooftops. What an incongruous sight that was!

Well, 14 years, one Ortolan Bunting, a low flying Honey Buzzard and quite a few Redstarts, Wheatears and Ring Ouzels later, it's fairly clear that my decision to watch the Scrubs was a good one. But I believe that I could have picked any under-watched urban area with sufficient habitat and still have found interesting species.

So my message is this: urban birding is exciting and rewarding. By getting to know a local patch well you will become familiar with the commoner species and you will be amazed by the variety and seasonal changes in their populations. With this ever growing knowledge will come a great sense of pride when you eventually uncover an incredibly unusual bird.

David LindoDavid Lindo is The Urban Birder ....

When David isn't birding he works as a PA to a commercial director and he also DJ's. He was previously Head of Membership at the British Trust for Ornithology and is the author of many articles on urban birdlife and appeared on BBC Springwatch recently looking for wildlife in the Scrubs alongside celebrity nature expert, Bill Oddie.
Visit David's own website at: www.theurbanbirder.com