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Early spring birding at Wormwood Scrubs

Inner city birding from David Lindo, the Urban Birder

March at The Scrubs was yet another month of records. Our sole rabbit was seen for several days instead of the usual once or twice a year (we celebrate the smallest of miracles!). Our 4th ever Black Redstart showed up and summer migrants like Chiffchaff, Blackcap and Northern Wheatear made welcomed returns though no Swallows were to be seen. Belatedly, we also recorded our 6th ever Dartford Warbler in late February. The big news of the month though has to be the prospecting pair of Skylark that seemed to have settled amongst the Meadow Pipits in the grassland. This species has to be seen as an indicator of just how far down the road The Scrubs has come as a natural area.

Over the many years that we have been keeping records here, it is clear that the area has gradually become more attractive to wildlife as it has matured. The woodlands are flourishing, Lester’s Embankment is abuzz with activity and the grassland has become a haven not only for ground nesting birds but also for countless invertebrates. Even the playing fields play their part acting as magnets for winter gulls and passage Northern Wheatears.

When you examine photographs of The Scrubs from the 70’s and even as recently as the 90’s you will see a massive difference in the habitat. Back then it was very sparse and it was a wonder how anything was discovered here. The Scrubs’ currently ‘natural’ beauty has to be put down to the sensitive management and many cases the love that has been lavished onto the site by bodies as varied as the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, Groundwork, English Nature, Trees For Cities, the Friends of The Scrubs to name but a few. But the tightrope that straddles conservation and the general usage of the site is a very fragile one that needs our continual support. We all hope that this special inner city haven will be around for a very long time to come.

Wheatear © S Daly

Contributors: Rob Ayers, Mathew Bournat, Oliver Bournat, Kim Dixon, David Jeffreys, David Lindo, Roy Nuttall, Jan Wilczur et al.

  • Cormorant
    The first birds for the month were reported on the 16th when 2 flew over. Thereafter, the odd bird was noticed with 4 on the 24th being the highest count.

  • Grey Heron
    Singletons were occasionally noted headed from the 16th.

  • Greylag
    This feral goose is becoming more frequent here at The Scrubs with up to 4 records per year. Our second record for 2009 was of 4 flying over on the 4th.

  • Canada Goose
    A few birds ferried themselves across our airspace during the month with the vast majority of reports involving birds that were heard. At least 10 birds flew over together on the 16th.

  • Mallard
    The seasonal flurry of activity occurred during March with the usual parties of up to 3 birds passing over.

  • Sparrowhawk
    The occasional bird was briefly seen during the month.

  • Peregrine
    A probable was seen rapidly gliding away at speed to the north of Lester’s Embankment on the 22nd. This incredible falcon is certainly more commonplace than what records suggest.

  • Kestrel
    There was probably a pair of birds in the area although no sexual behaviour was noted. Interestingly, 2 males were by the pony centre in close proximity on the 1st showing no aggression towards each other. One of the birds was noted to be a near adult as they both were watched coming to the ground to feed on earthworms.

  • Black-headed Gull
    A massive flock (by our meagre standards) were at large on the football pitches on the 1st when over 600 graced the fields. They were a gorgeous sight; a white shimmering mass of wings when they were eventually spooked, flying up ever spiralling before most headed on north. This was singularly the largest flock ever to be witnessed at The Scrubs. Numbers dropped rapidly thereafter from 400 or so on the 4th to under 20 on the 24th.

  • Common Gull
    Rather larger numbers were present this year than the corresponding month in 2008 with a peak count of around 60 on the 1st being the apex - as compared to around 15 last year. There were still around 50 present on the 5th but as with their black-headed cousins numbers fell away fairly rapidly after that date.

  • Herring Gull
    Fairly large numbers persisted into the early days of March with over 45 birds counted on the 1st, many more than March 2008. On the 22nd over 50 birds were riding the thermals over Lester’s Embankment.

  • Lesser Black-back
    Around 25 were counted on the 1st dropping to around 17 birds the following day – which was a very good total for us. Around 20 birds were also seen on the 22nd. For the first time in recent years there were no reports of their larger counterpart, the Great Black-back during March.

  • Woodpigeon
    Much nest building activity was noted this month with nest material collecting seen from all corners of The Scrubs. Around 50 birds seemed to be the average count.

  • Stock Dove
    Scarcely seen, though present nonetheless, a pair was noticed flying over on the 16th. Another pair was flushed on the 22nd from the ploughed edge of the southern side of the grassland and a loner flew over on the 23rd.

  • Rose-ringed Parakeet
    Hundreds of birds were seen every morning along their Braybrook Street roost just prior to dawn. Our estimate is that there may be at least a thousand birds involved. If they choose to retain this roost during the breeding season then it will be the males and non-breeding immatures that will occupy it whilst the females incubate. Doing the normal course of the day upwards of 40 birds was regularly counted.

  • Green Woodpecker
    Our first birds of 2009 were reported on the 8th when a pair flew along Lester’s Embankment. Presumably, one or the other of the pair was infrequently seen and heard along the embankment thereafter.

  • Great Spotted Woodpecker
    The usual 2 pairs were cavorting around the site, though the drumming had become less persistent.

  • Skylark
    After an amazing April for this species, when a record 22 birds hung around for the day, March opened with a singleton being flushed from the mown land used by the military on the 2nd. It flew into the grassland. On the 8th a male was watched singing in its charismatic song flight – an unprecedented event that had never before been recorded at The Scrubs. It sang throughout the month, often from the ground. The prospect of our first breeding pair of this rural lark was almost too exciting to bear! Skylarks are notoriously prone to disturbance and our initial thoughts were that it would be a one-off event that would result in the pair swiftly moving on elsewhere to breed. Well, imagine our delight when we still were watching the male holding territory at the end of the month. It was clear that they had indeed settled and there were promising signs that female may even be on eggs. Of course, they are not out of the woods yet (so to speak) as we are not at hand all the time to ward off wandering dogs, foraging foxes and marauding crows. Indeed, a crow was watched trying to snatch the song-flighting male one morning. The Skylark calmly flew off away from the nesting area allowing the crow to chase it before it plummeted back into the grass. We will be monitoring their progress very closely.

  • Meadow Pipit
    Around 20 birds were counted on the 1st in and over the sign posted ‘Pipit Heath’ area. This total had settled to around 10 – 15 birds for the remainder of the month with up to 5 singing males noted. The birds that resided close to the larks were not impressed by their larger neighbours and often chased the male Skylark.

  • Pied Wagtail
    At the beginning of the month at least 3 birds frequented the ‘marsh’ that has been evolving in the path adjacent to Lester’s Embankment for some time now.

  • Wren
    Up to 10 birds were counted on the 16th.

  • Dunnock
    Much song filled the air, particularly around Lester’s Embankment. At least 10 birds were seen on the 1st.

  • Robin
    A minimum of 12 birds was noticed on the 30th

  • Northern Wheatear
    The true harbinger of spring, a gorgeous male was discovered sitting on a Blackthorn bush in the marked off ’Pipit Heath’ area on the 30th. It had arrived a day earlier than last year and 4 days later than our earliest ever, in 2006. The following day 2 superb males were seen together on the mown grass between Central Copse and Chats Paddock. These wanderers from the south are always guaranteed to set our hearts racing, fast tracking us out of the winter doldrums.

  • Black Redstart
    A male seen briefly on Lester’s Embankment on the 24th was an unexpected find. It was our 4th ever record.

  • Stonechat
    Three birds were seen on the 2nd including a male. The cast changed on the 4th when there were 3 females present and the male joined them on the following day. During the weekend of the 8th and 9th up to 6 birds were in the area. Historically, there is always a numerical crescendo before these cute birds disappear until the autumn. This year was no different as no Stonechats were seen after the 9th.

  • Song Thrush
    This familiar thrush was much in evidence during March with at least 15 noted.

  • Redwing
    These winter wanderers were drifting back to their northern breeding grounds. We had nothing like that numbers recorded last March when an incredible 1000 plus birds headed east on the 18th. We made do with drips and drabs throughout the month with the significant counts being 57 on the 4th and 20 on the 8th and 22nd.

  • Fieldfare
    Our only record of this regal thrush was of an individual on the 29th.

  • Blackbird
    At least 25 birds were around on most days.

  • Blackcap
    On the 23rd at least 3 birds were found including a singer. These birds, unbeknown to us at the time, where the earliest ever returning spring birds at The Scrubs! At least 6 birds were present by the 30th including at least 3 singers.

  • Dartford Warbler
    A belated record related to a bird discovered by the bramble patch adjacent to Lester’s Embankment on February 23rd by a visiting birder. It was consorting with our local Stonechats.

  • Chiffchaff
    Our first spring migrant was discovered calling in the northeast area of Scrubs Lane Wood on the 1st, making it our earliest returning bird ever. By the month’s end up to 10 birds including 4 singers were present.

  • Great Tit
    Rarely comprehensively counted, at least 10 birds were about on the 5th.

  • Blue Tit
    At least 13 birds were buzzing around the site on the 30th.

  • Long-tailed Tit
    The roving winter flocks have truly broken up as most seen were in twosomes and a maximum of 12 birds were seen on any visit.

  • Magpie
    No change here in terms of numbers with the usual 20 or so birds seen.

  • Jay
    A pair was heard screeching from Martin Bell’s Wood on the 2nd and 2 were noted on the 30th

  • Jackdaw
    The oc casional birds were observed flying over during March with 4 on the 2nd, 5 on the 16th and around 6 on the 22nd being the most.

  • Carrion Crow
    The usual murder of crows was present with at least 350 seen on the 4th. Occasionally, they all take to the air in unison to mark the observation of an unseen Peregrine. When this occurs the sheer number of these birds is quite incredible, as they seem to materialise from nowhere.  Annoyingly, well meaning members of the public are still leaving bread out for these birds in the misguided belief that they are helping them out. Unfortunately, it results in masses of the birds congregating in and around the grassland adding additional pressure to our already fragile ground nesting bird populations.

  • Starling
    A flock of around 30 habitually roved the grassland during the month, although over 100 birds were generally counted on the 4th and 5th.

  • House Sparrow
    Away from their Braybrook Street stronghold, where around 10 were counted on the 22nd, a few were noted from Central Copse.

  • Chaffinch
    This breeding season’s shaping up to be their best yet as at least 5 males were holding territory around the park.

  • Linnet
    After the return of our first summer residing birds at the end of last month numbers quickly picked up. There were at least 10 birds in territory along Lester’s Embankment by the month’s end.

  • Greenfinch
    Around 30 or more birds were continually seen displaying and singing from Lester’s Embankment, the northeast corner of Scrubs Lane Wood and Martin Bell’s Wood.

  • Goldfinch
    This beautiful finch seemed to be settling in the northeast corner of Scrubs Lane Wood, Martin Bell’s Wood and the area of trees around the community centre on the west side. A total of 15 birds were counted early in the month.

  • Reed Bunting
    A male was seen along the southern edge of the grassland on the opening two days of the month.

Compartments within Wormwood Scrubs

Martin Bell’s Wood – formally known as the Southern Paddock is situated on the south eastern corner close to Scrubs Lane.

Scrubs Lane Wood – the strip of woodland on the eastern edge of the site running the length of Scrubs Lane to the east and along the northern edge to Chats Paddock in the west.

Chats Paddock - will also be known as the main lizard habitat.

Lester’s Embankment – marks the north western border of the Scrubs and is also referred to as ‘the embankment’. Now named after Lester Holloway who in the 80’s unsuccessfully campaigned to stop British Rail developing on the Scrubs.

North West Corner – the western edge of the Scrubs.

Braybrook Woods – the woodland strip running along the southern edge from Braybrook Street up to and including outside the prison along the southern parameter.

2009 Year List

Cormorant, Mute Swan, Greylag, Canada Goose, Mallard, Sparrowhawk, Peregrine, Kestrel, Lapwing, Black-headed Gull, Common Gull, Herring Gull, Lesser Black-back, Great Black-back, Feral Pigeon, Woodpigeon, Stock Dove, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Green Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Skylark, Rock Pipit, Meadow Pipit, Pied Wagtail, Wren, Dunnock, Robin, Northern Wheatear, Stonechat, Black Redstart, Song Thrush, Redwing, Fieldfare, Mistle Thrush, Blackbird, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Goldcrest, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Jay, Magpie, Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Starling, House Sparrow, Chaffinch, Linnet, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Bullfinch, Reed Bunting

53 species thus far (56 species in March 2008 & 49 in March 2007)

Read more of David's Urban Birding at The Urban Birder