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Photograph: John Bridges
Photograph: John Bridges

A wildlife expert reveals ten beautiful birds you can spot in London

Your pivot to becoming David Attenborough starts here

By
Kate Lloyd
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So, you’ve done jigsaws, made banana bread and got into gardening – time for another extremely wholesome hobby: birdwatching. You might not think of London as a wildlife hotspot, but actually loads of little feathery guys call this city home (even one of our most industrial buildings is home to peregrine falcons). Want to get to grips with the bird basics? Sam Bentley-Toon from London Wildlife Trust reveals ten species you’re likely to see in London right now. Then why not go tree-spotting once youre done? 

1. Great spotted woodpecker

Photograph: Mark Hamblin
Photograph: Mark Hamblin

The resonant drumming of this bird can be heard ringing through woodlands in late winter and spring, although they have also been spotted in gardens. They use their powerful hammering skills to excavate nest holes in trees and to smash apart decaying wood to get at the insects inside. Their specially reinforced skull protects them from impact and they use an extra-long tongue to probe for food.

Where to spot them: In woodlands across the capital, including Gutteridge Wood in Hillingdon. 

2. Goldcrest

Photograph: John Bridges
Photograph: John Bridges

This is the UK’s smallest bird but is known as the ‘king of birds’ in European folklore – its scientific name is regulus regulus or ‘little king’ twice. It has a bright yellow crest on its head and can be seen darting about in vegetation searching for tiny leaf-dwelling insects.

Where to spot them: Sydenham Hill Wood.

3. Nuthatch

Photograph: Jon Hawkins
WildNetPhotograph: Jon Hawkins

These are woodland birds that hunt for their insect prey by scurrying around on trees and plucking them from crevices in the bark. They are the only bird in the UK able to run headlong both up and down a tree trunk.

Where to spot them: In old woodlands such as the remaining fragments of the Great North Wood in south London.

4. Swift

Photograph: Stefan Johansson
Photograph: Stefan Johansson

These birds are a true herald of summer and their screaming calls and hurtling flight are a joy to witness. They overwinter in sub-Saharan Africa and make the epic 6,000-mile flight here each spring. Young birds remain airborne from the moment they leave the nest until they find their own nest site, two years and two round trips to Africa later.

Where to spot them: These acrobatic crescent-shaped birds can be seen plucking insects from the air all over London from May to July.

5. Starling

Photograph: Mark Robinson
Photograph: Mark Robinson

Dark brown with a shimmer of rainbow iridescence, these charismatic birds can be seen hanging out in noisy groups. They have a bewilderingly varied repertoire of songs and calls and are masters of mimicry, copying other birds’ songs as well as car alarms, screeching train wheels and even human speech.

Where to spot them: In all sorts of unlikely urban environments such as supermarket car parks.

6. Peregrine falcon

Photograph: Bertie Gregory
Photograph: Bertie Gregory

Since the turn of the millennium these birds have boomed in London, taking advantage of plentiful pigeons and high-altitude concrete nest-sites to master the city’s skies. These expert aerial hunters are the fastest animals on earth.

Where to spot them: They nest in several places across the capital, most famously at Tate Modern. You’ll need a pair of binoculars to get a good look.

7. Great crested grebe

Photograph: Tom Hibbert
Photograph: Tom Hibbert

These elegant water birds, with their glamorous head plumage, can be seen serenely bobbing around on the capital’s water bodies. In spring they engage in an ornate courtship ritual involving precise dance moves and beak-fuls of pondweed which are held aloft and whipped back and forth in a stylish finale.

Where to spot them: Walthamstow Wetlands.

8. Kingfisher

Photograph: Jon Hawkins
Photograph: Jon Hawkins

Perhaps our most vividly coloured bird, the kingfisher is often merely glimpsed as a blur of electric blue and burnt orange. They require clean, slow-moving water, well stocked with fish and, ideally, with plenty of well-placed perches from which they can hunt. These birds excavate deep burrows in vertical sandy banks to make their nests.

Where to spot them: Near lakes and rivers, in nature reserves such as Crane Park Island in Twickenham and Wilderness Island in Sutton

9. Little egret

Photograph: Adam Jones
Photograph: Adam Jones

This graceful white heron only started breeding in the UK in the 1990s after it colonised from mainland Europe. It can be seen delicately stepping around the edges of London’s lakes and rivers where it hunts for fish, frogs and other morsels. During the breeding season the little egret develops two elegant head plumes, which were highly prized in the nineteenth century as hat decorations and resulted in the species being hunted to the brink of extinction.

Where to spot them: On slow-moving rivers and lakes like Walthamstow Wetlands.

10. Goldfinch

Goldfinches
Photograph: Derek Moore

This bird with its scarlet face, golden body and bright yellow wings is definitely in the running for UK’s prettiest bird. A group of goldfinches is aptly named a ‘charm.’

Where to spot them: They are an increasingly common sight in the capital’s gardens, with numbers soaring across the UK in recent decades perhaps as a result of bird-feeding.

To find your nearest London Wildlife Trust reserve as well as ideas for wildlife from your window lockdown activities visit www.wildlondon.org.uk

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